Those Who Wish Me Dead
Starring Angelina Jolie as a smokejumper, this action-infused crime-thriller wants to burn bright, but usually only flickers.
May 13, 2021
A smokejumper stationed to a Montana watchtower, plagued by past traumas and forced to help a teenage boy evade hired killers, Those Who Wish Me Dead's Hannah Faber actually first debuted on the page. Watching Angelina Jolie bring the whisky-swilling, no-nonsense, one of the boys-type figure to the screen, it's easy to assume otherwise. The part doesn't quite feel as if it was written specifically for the smouldering movie star, though. Rather, it seems like the kind of role that might've been penned with Liam Neeson or Denzel Washington in mind — see: this year's The Marksman for the former, and 2004's Man on Fire for the latter — then flipped, gender-wise, to gift Jolie a new star vehicle. On the one hand, let's be thankful that that's not how this character came about. Kudos to author Michael Koryta, who also co-writes the screenplay here based on his 2016 novel, for conjuring up Hannah to begin with. But on the other hand, it's never a great sign when a female protagonist plays like a grab bag of stock-standard macho hero traits, just dressed up in a shapelier guise.
It has been six years since Jolie has stepped into a mere mortal's shoes — since 2015's By the Sea, which she wrote and directed — and she leaves no doubt that Hannah is flesh and blood. There's still an iciness to the firefighter, and she still has the actor's cheekbones and pout, but Maleficent, she isn't. She's bruised, internally, by a fire that got away and left a body count. After hanging out with her colleagues, parachuting out of cars and brooding in her tower, she's soon physically in harm's way as well. As Those Who Wish Me Dead's plot gets her to this juncture, it also cuts back and forth between forensic accountant Owen Casserly (Jake Weber, Midway) and his son Connor (Finn Little, Angel of Mine), plus assassins Patrick and Jack (The Great's Nicholas Hoult and Game of Thrones' Aiden Gillen). Thanks to a treasure trove of incriminating evidence against important people that no one was ever supposed to find, these two duos are on a collision course. When they do cross paths — while Owen is trying to take Connor to stay with Ethan (Jon Bernthal, The Peanut Butter Falcon), his brother-in-law, a sheriff's deputy and one of Hannah's colleagues — it also nudges the boy into the smokejumper's orbit.
As he demonstrated with his scripts for Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River, actor-turned-writer/director Taylor Sheridan (12 Strong) favours a patient approach. His narratives frequently boast an entire forest's worth of moving parts, and he's never in much of a rush to piece them all together. Accordingly, he takes his time bringing Hannah and Connor into each other's lives, and unfurls their ordeal from there with the same unhurried air. Those Who Wish Me Dead isn't interested in fleshing out its characters any more than the plot demands, however. The audience spends ample time with the film's central duo, yet can't claim to really get to know them. They're both haunted by what they've seen and lost, and neither is keen to spill too many words talking it through — but, although both Jolie and her young Australian co-star Little do exactly what they're asked, and even impart as much soulfulness as they each can on top, these characters could've been shaken out of any western-leaning, action-infused crime-thriller. They could equally walk right out of this flick and into the next formulaic entry in the genre.
Also just as familiar: the cat-and-mouse games that ensue as Hannah and Connor try to reach the authorities, Patrick and Jack attempt to track their every move, and Ethan and his pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore, Happy!) become entangled in the drama. Naturally, an encroaching blaze fuels a significant part of the narrative — which proves inevitable from the very first frame, but does at least give Sheridan and cinematographer Ben Richardson (Mare of Easttown) a smokier visual palette. As its score keeps stressing, this is meant to be a tense film. It isn't; ticking boxes so dutifully is rarely suspenseful, as the otherwise vastly dissimilar Spiral: From the Book of Saw has also demonstrated recently. Still, Those Who Wish Me Dead does possess its own distinctive look. While texture and urgency are largely absent from the story, all those leaves and flames do their best to approximate the same sensations. Your eyes will register the difference, but your blood pressure will remain undisturbed.
Occasionally — not enough, but occasionally nonetheless — Sheridan, Koryta and co-writer Charles Leavitt (Warcraft: The Beginning) don't make the obvious choice. When the feature allows Hannah and Connor's melancholy moods to linger, or does the same with a shot that doesn't immediately thrust the plot forward, it toys with being a more interesting film. The same applies to the way that it lets Allison play the hero, albeit after first putting her through a violent ordeal while she's literally barefoot and pregnant. Patrick and Jack are also curious inclusions. They're so one-note, it's hard to see what actors of Hoult and Gillen's calibre saw in the parts, but they'd also likely make a great double act in an In Bruges-esque Martin McDonagh flick. Jolie is tasked with anchoring this melange of elements, which she does; however, this isn't a feature that star power can bolster. Instead, Those Who Wish Me Dead is a generic movie that flirts with more, led by an impressive lead who's capable of more. It wants to burn bright, but usually only flickers.