Director: Taylor Sheridan
Writer: Michael Koryta, Charles Leavitt, Taylor Sheridan
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Jon Bernthal, Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult, Medina Senghore, Jake Weber
If you’ve seen Sicario (1 and/or 2), you may be a little familiar with Taylor Sheridan’s work as a writer (and possibly familiar with his face if you’ve watched enough television). His writing credits are few, but he’s already developing themes and tropes with his screenplays. Those Who Wish Me Dead (TWWMD) is the proverbial apple near the tree, following a similar jaunt down the action/thriller brick road with another female co-protagonist. Sheridan also takes over directorial duties for this feature, putting New Line’s (et al) money where Sheridan’s mouth is. Is it a worthy investment, or is it bound for the bonfire?
When forensic accountant Owen (Weber) hears his boss and his family have died in a gas explosion, he immediately knows it was no accident. Knowing that he will likely be next, Owen takes his son, Connor (Little), out of town to the wilderness of Montana. There, he hopes they can hide out at his brother-in-law Ethan’s (Bernthal) home, with Ethan being a deputy sheriff. Owen is murdered en route by Jack and Patrick Blackwell (Gillen and Hoult, respectively), the same two hitmen-cum-assassins who murdered his boss, and it’s witnessed by Connor. Escaping through the woods, Connor runs into Hannah (Jolie), a smokejumper stationed in a nearby tower to watch for forest fires. Connor entrusts his life and the secret information he holds to Hannah, who must in turn decide if and how she’ll help Connor while battling her own personal demons, as well as a fire that begins to rage all around them.
The irony of TWWMD is that it’s a slow burner but when it gets there, it really gets there. It’s something of a rollercoaster – we’re slowly elevated as events occur to bring the main plot into action, and then we’re at the peak, not knowing quite what to expect on the other side until we find ourselves falling with a thrill as the twists and turns hit one after another (mostly thanks to the Blackwells’ bloodlust). You could say it comes to a smooth finish, but not without a little mental whiplash. Some scenes and events are arguably somewhat predictable, but it makes it no less thrilling when the characters are tripped up or blindsided. At no point does the pace feel sluggish, nor the story a struggle to follow – Sheridan, Koryta and Leavitt have done a decent job keeping everything flowing well and keeping us glued to the screen. Sheridan’s directing also keeps that same flow – sometimes it pays to have a writer/director on the project.
The way the separate story arcs of Connor, Hannah and Ethan come to weave throughout one another is smoothly written, despite their individual experiences being far from smooth. The inference of the brutal forest fire not only serves a literal sense of danger, but also a culmination of meaning for the central characters, particularly Hannah. Between that and the harsh reality of the forest, nothing is made easy for any character. Connor proves to be more than just your average kid – brave, intelligent, and perhaps just the hard-to-swallow tonic that Hannah needed at that moment in her life. Ethan also proves to be of strong character, but story-wise, he deserved better.
Little is probably the standout of the film. His performance as Connor is completely convincing and he demonstrates a strong range of emotion that isn’t common among young actors. He certainly gives Jolie a run for her money in their scenes together. That’s not to say Jolie isn’t good, because she certainly is. Jolie has always been a strong actor, honing her craft over the years, a craft that has likely been helped along by her diversions in to writing and directing. She deftly assists us to understand Hannah’s mental state and the emotional turmoil she’s suffering. She also just makes Hannah cool. I’d hate to compare Hannah to Lara Croft, but Jolie definitely brings elements of her past foray into tomb raiding to her latest character. Bernthal’s Ethan is that character that you root for, the one genuinely good guy for whom you would give your left arm. Bernthal does such a great job of getting us to like Ethan, to wish that we were all a little bit more Ethan, that you will likely come to see why he deserved more from his story arc, as previously mentioned. As for our antagonists, Gillen and Hoult are truly excellent. They had the potential to be just more of your run-of-the-mill movie killers, but they’re just so sociopathic that you just couldn’t imagine that such people truly exist. In the real world they would be pant-shittingly terrifying, but in a fictional world they make for exhilarating villains. If ever there were a spin-off, I’d like it to be just Patrick, Jack and Ethan. Please.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is a great use of an hour and a half of your time, but it’s also one of those little gems that will soon be lost to the annals of film. It’s not got anything in it to suggest longevity – it has cult-classic potential, thanks entirely to the Blackwell villains, but nothing to keep it alive past 2021 (there go any 2022 award nominations). Sheridan is ascending on his own rollercoaster, proving that he’s got what it takes to make some solid movies, but he could do with mixing it up a little more in the future – keep the female leads, but perhaps give them something a little different to do – how about some female sociopaths? I would also like more Ethan-types who can Hulk-smash anything and win the day.