Synopsis – A teenage murder witness finds himself pursued by twin assassins in the Montana wilderness with a survival expert tasked with protecting him — and a forest fire threatening to consume them all.
My Take – Ever since establishing himself as the reviver of interest in neo-Westerns with the surprise success of filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s cartel thriller Sicario (2015), Taylor Sheridan, as a writer has only doubled down on his efforts by earning himself an Academy Award nomination for his excellent screenplay of Hell or High Water (2016), making his directorial debut with the under-watched Indian reservation murder mystery, Wind River (2017), and by co-creating Paramount Network‘s highly successful drama, Yellowstone.
Though his efforts on Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018), didn’t receive the expected or desired reception, it sure was good enough to earn him writing duties on the Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse adaption, and triple duties (writing, directing and producing) on the adaption of author Michael Koryta‘s 2014 survival novel. Most importantly, unlike the Michael B. Jordan led actioner (which went on to debut on Amazon Prime), this latest hybrid HBO Max release, seemed more in Sheridan‘s terrain, which offered him a chance to tell yet another tale of rugged heroes, resilient women and
ruthless villains, whose trifling played out against the unforgiving backdrop of America’s implacable great outdoors. However, the weird part is, despite that vast difference in their settings, both the films managed to operate with the same flaw of being straightforward action thrillers, without the panache or depth we have come to expect from Sheridan‘s works.
Yet, that is not to say that this one is a bad film per say, as despite being far from Sheridan’s best work, it still manages to be an enjoyable violent action film, that retains the neo-Western Sheridan touch, reinstates Angelina Jolie as a foremost female action star, and moves at an energetic speed bearing enough of his rugged trademarks to merit 100 minutes of one’s time.
The story follows Hannah (Angelina Jolie), an elite smoke-jumper firefighter stationed in Montana, who is still traumatized after misreading a fire a year ago, which resulted in the death of three young boys. A trauma which deals with by engaging in dangerous drinking and antics, which often find her facing her ex-boyfriend Ethan (John Bernthal), the Park County Sheriff, resulting in a solitary post in a remote fire tower in the middle of the forest, where she has to spend her summer watching for signs of forest fires, lightning strikes, or other dangerous phenomena.
However, Hannah is forced to put aside her own fear and self-loathing when she comes across the 12-year-old son Connor (Finn Little), who has been on the run ever since a pair of hit men, Jack (Aidan Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult), killed his forensic accountant Owen (Jake Weber) after he learned about some illegal financial dealings of their client. And with their boss, Arthur (Tyler Perry) imploring them to leave behind no witnesses, Jack and Patrick are determined to do whatever they can from murdering random civilians to targeting Ethan’s pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore) to setting a forest fire, to smoke Connor out. With the forest blazing and gun men at her door step, Hannah finds herself determined to right the wrongs of the prior year, at all cost.
Once everything is in place, director Sheridan methodically moves from set-piece to set-piece, escalating the stakes as the fire grows more untenable and the assassins become more desperate. While the first half of the film feels busy, jumping between regions, plot threads, and characters with a lack of focus, but the pacing improves as director Sheridan locks into a more stripped-down, visceral chase through the wilderness.
Working mainly as a lean throwback to the type of muscular ’90s and early ’00s films that were set on a distilling plot and contained character down to basic archetypes in favor of streamlined set-pieces, here, director Sheridan is less concerned with the elements of his previous work, and is more than happy to showcase Jolie ridiculously contending with the compounding issue of simultaneously fighting assassins and a raging wildfire.
The script too is rife with clichés and otherwise contrived dialogue, and leans so hard into an emotional angle that it simply never resonates. It also wastes its early runtime roving among a dozen or so characters it will introduce, assign a key attribute and then do very little else to flesh out further. But instead the film works more when it is interested in functioning as a metaphor about how nature is unforgiving to the intruders who abuse it.
Like Sheridan’s previous efforts, Montana’s spectacular wilderness is every bit the star here, where both natural threats and foul play intertwine to create an atmosphere that requires a survivalist’s instincts and a perpetual state of high alert. Especially in the final act which features a climax of a prolonged battle between the two sides as the fire spreads around them.
Performance wise, Angelina Jolie is in excellent form as the loose cannon with nothing to live for, and it is good to see her front line an action thriller after a decade. Young actor Finn Little does well with whatever little material he has in hand, despite not sharing an ounce of chemistry with Jolie. Jon Bernthal‘s good hearted cop act is strikingly similar to his role in Wind River, and manages to be likeable, however, his heavily pregnant wife played by Medina Senghore in her feature debut manages to be the scene-stealing standout.
In other roles, both Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult seem to having a blast, injecting a world-weariness into their otherwise conventional killers, Jake Weber does well in his small screen time. Without a doubt, Tyler Perry‘s cameo is oddest and most incomplete element of the film. On the whole, ‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’ is an effective straightforward thriller yet is far from Taylor Sheridan’s best work.
Directed – Taylor Sheridan
Rated – R
Run Time – 100 minutes