Throughout his career as a writer and director up to this point, Taylor Sheridan has found a way to turn familiar stories into something more, often set against the backdrop of the modern American West. The settings of Sheridan's projects become characters of their own, in most cases, whether it be the plains of New Mexico or the mountains of Montana. These rich and fascinating landscapes combine with grounded, interesting characters to take a concept as simple as a heist or a man on the run and elevates them to create fresh tales that keep you invested from the jump. Sheridan's patented style is not only on display in his new film, Those Who Wish Me Dead; it's featured front and center in the storefront window. This slow-burn thriller is Sheridan through and through, and that's a very good thing.
Angelina Jolie stars as Hannah, a smokejumper (firefighters who parachute into forest fires) dealing with PTSD from a recent wildfire who is assigned to a job in a lookout tower in the middle of the woods until she's deemed mentally stable enough to return to her team. Hannah crosses paths with a teen-aged boy named Connor (Finn Little), who is on the run from two assassins (Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) that just murdered his father in front of him. When tracking down the boy becomes more difficult than expected, the assassins start a fire that quickly makes its way through the forest, and Hannah must outwit both man and nature in order to keep Connor safe.
The plot of this thriller isn't anything new, it's really just a take on Lone Wolf and Cub, and not all too different from The Mandalorian. The veteran warrior stumbles upon a young boy and vows to keep them safe from danger, with the two forming an unlikely bond in the process. The backstory for the assassins and their boss (Tyler Perry) is even more shallow, and the film never even explains what the information was that the accountant possessed, or what dangerous organization any of them worked for.
With Those Who Wish Me Dead, however, none of that really matters. Despite its lack of depth, the plot itself is completely coherent and there aren't any glaring holes to speak of. It's a fine story that takes on new life thanks to those burning Montana hills and Angelina Jolie's exceptional performance.
My father was a firefighter for 35 years and my younger brother joined the same department about a year after dad retired. To say I'm a little too critical of how firefighters are portrayed on-screen is an understatement. It's rare that they ever feel genuine or like someone I would actually run into at the firehouse. Given that she's one of the most recognizable film stars on the planet, I didn't really expect Jolie to break that mold, but I'm delighted to be proven wrong.
Jolie nails the spirit of a firefighter with her portrayal of Hannah. The opening scenes set her up as a troubled, down-to-earth hero who has been through more than she ever could have imagined, and Jolie wears that pain on her sleeve. Her eyes are constantly in the middle of a balancing act between fear and courage and they tell a beautifully tragic tale in every scene. It's one of her best performances in years.
Similarly, the forests that provide the backdrop for Those Who Wish Me Dead weave together a narrative that's every bit as stunning as it is heartbreaking. There's something so serene about those hills, but you can never shake the feeling that there's a darkness boiling beneath the surface, waiting for an opportunity to burst forth and tell the other side of the story. When that fire catches hold and begins sweeping through the woods, it's absolutely terrifying. But it's also beautiful, in a way. It's something to behold. Something to be respected.
Really, the forest and Hannah are one and the same, and that's where the beauty of Those Who Wish Me Dead truly lies. They're equals. Sheridan breathes life into the trees just as Jolie breathes life into Hannah. Together, they create the perfect atmosphere for a tense and deliberately paced thriller that leaves you thinking about its characters long after you've forgotten what it was actually about.0comments
Rating: 4 out of 5
Those Who Wish Me Dead is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.