Those Who Wish Me Dead, the new thriller adapted from the novel by Michael Koryta, is a strange title. For a film that is Only The Brave meets Hell or High Water, the title doesn’t nearly do the movie, or its characters, justice. The film is framed, or at least marketed, as Jolie is the film’s lead. There isn’t anyone who wishes her dead besides herself. Her obstacle is survivor’s remorse, but the kid she encounters in the middle of the forest running for his life from two men trying to kill him? Yes… two people wish him dead.
Jolie plays a hard-drinking, daredevil firefighter, Hannah Faber, who suffers from severe PTSD. She failed to save the lives of three children during a bushfire and has struggled to regain her equilibrium in the aftermath. It’s also why she stands on the back of a pickup truck and releases a parachute that sends her flying backward in a dense forest area.
Unsurprisingly, Hannah fails a psych eval and is demoted to a lone fire tower along the continental ridge in Montana, where she is tasked with looking for smoke. What she doesn’t expect is to find a child on the run from two cold-blooded killers. The fire feels more like an outlying catastrophe that just so happens to coincide with this survival mission, and it’s Jolie who brings weight to her character and ably propels the story forward.
Taylor Sheridan, who wrote and directed Those Who Wish Me Dead, is clearly trying to make audiences forget that he adapted the woeful Amazon Studios film Without Remorse for the screen. Here, he juggles multiple storylines but, for the most part, manages to keep the action from overwhelming the emotion in the movie. Fortunately, the performances are convincing, and the young kid, played by Finn Little, is an extraordinary talent who makes his grief and fear believable. With Jon Bernthal as a Deputy Sheriff and Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult playing cold-blooded terrorists, Those Who Wish Me Dead is a throwback to vintage thrillers that seamlessly weave multiple storylines together against pounding action sequences.
After the district attorney and his family are brutally murdered, Accountant Owen (Jake Webber) runs with his son Connor (Finn Little) after being convinced that he will be the next target. The killers, played by Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult, rampage through Owen’s house and determine where to find him (from a family photo, no less). In the picture are Deputy sheriff Ethan (Jon Bernthal) and his pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore), so it’s assumed Owen and Connor are heading to a national park in Montana.
In the same small town, smokejumper Hannah Faber (Angelina Jolie) has been demoted and is playing havoc with her life, which Ethan sees as her coping mechanism. She is posted to a fire lookout tower in Park County, Montana, to heal when she finds Connor stumbling toward her. She eventually gets him to speak and learns that he has been through an unspeakable trauma on his journey with his father and now is on the run by himself from the killers seeking to silence him forever.
The film has some great action sequences, but the main story with Jolie and Finn Little is perhaps the most potent and might’ve been more of a focus for the story. The casting of Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult seemed to require more of a storyline for the actors. However, they have little else to do besides track their prey, and the story might’ve focussed more on Hannah’s attachment to Connor and how he helps her overcome her trauma. But this is a Taylor Sheridan film, which seems to mean that a western-style atmosphere is required, and therefore more guns and less character development. Reassuringly, Jolie reminds audiences of her star power. She is such a fascinating actor that the film could’ve solely been built around her character instead.
Perhaps the most confusing aspect of the film is fire, which is, of course, very CGI-heavy. The fire seems to move with a ferocious speed when Sheridan wants it to; otherwise, the characters seem to approach the fire without much consequence. Further, there doesn’t seem to be a purpose for the bushfire besides the killers causing a distraction to trap Connor. If there had been severe fire warnings and firefighters preparing for the onslaught of the season, it might’ve had more of an impact on the characters, but the fire itself is a MacGuffin. Hannah’s extraordinary abilities aren’t mined; instead, her remarkable skills go to waste.
Fortunately, Jolie is captivating and worth the viewing alone.