Very much in the vein of a 90s natural disaster or man vs. nature style thriller, one that reminds you of such 90 era action thrillers films like Cliffhanger, The River Wild, Dante’s Peak or Volcano, the 2021 Those Who Wish Me Dead, Taylor Sheridan’s latest contribution to neo-noir crime thriller with touches of a modern western, his favorite meddling of genres, is a very conventional and mildly suspenseful character driven thriller that bounces back between an action thriller and low key drama that is delivered with some mixed results.
After huge success within the last five years, Sheridan returns to the American heartland to a place of crime, abuse of power, and corrupt government agencies, including Sicario, his impressive screenwriting debut that he penned helmed by Denis Villeneuve, and High and Hell Water which generated him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and he’s had recent directing success as of late after finding some commercial success with his sophomore feature Wind River (Sheridan denounces his feature debut Vile) the hit television series Yellowstone, Sicario is most impressive and layered script and work to date.
Certainly a mainstream film that seems like it’s from a different era, now released on the HBO Max app and in theaters, the star’s feature of Angelina Jolie should help position the anatomy of strong, independent female lead characters and with her star power should generate the film a wide audience where they will more than likely discover streaming than at the theater. If this film was released in the 90s or even 2000s, it probably would position itself as a huge box-office success. However, this film will probably generate mid-numbers for Warner’s summer release due to reluctant audiences who aren’t quite ready to attend the theater, and this film will certainly satisfy Sheridan aficionados, who appears to become a modern David Mamet, Kenneth Lonnergan, or Aaron Sorkin, other screenwriters who eventually positioned themselves as reputable film directors.
Now with his last two features that he has written, Sheridan has stepped into literary adaptation, Without Remorse which he co-wrote is an adaptation of the Tom Clancy best-selling novel, and now his most recent adaptation Those Who Wish Me Dead is another adaptation based on the novel by Michel Kortya, it appears Sheridan is more conformable with his own material. Despite the familiar premise of a middle-aged woman, about a smokejumper who holds regret and trauma from memories after a rescue mission goes awry, Sheridan serves up enough conflicting tones and character depth along with some competently staged action sequences and adequate suspense that makes it perfectly enjoyable, without ever being bold, fresh, or ingenious.
Sheridan is able to keep the material pulpier, just not as complex or layered as his other yarns, overall an effective thriller that has very lean subject matter, yet the storytelling remains engrossing. Still not over the torment, Hannah Faber (Angelina Jolie) is very convincing and commanding in the role as a firefighter–a smokejumper–who helps spot fires in a watch tower in the forests of Montana. Hannah holds a lot of regrets where she failed to rescue three kids in rapid fire. We’re introduced to a subplot involving a forensic accountant named Owen Casserltly, who’s on the run with his son Connor (Finn Little), who holds a lot of incriminating evidence in which a father-and-son pair of assassins who already murdered his boss and family by blowing up their house with gasoline.
Frantic and paranoid as expected, Owen embarks to his brother-in-law Ethan Sawyer (John Bernthal), who at one time was engaged to Hannah but is now married to Allison (Medina Senghore), who is now pregnant. While they seek refuge, Owen’s vehicle is ambushed by the father-son trained assassin duo, the son is Patrick (Nichols Hoult) and the father assassin Jack Blackwell (Aidan Guell), in which leads to Connor running off the road and into a cliff while getting shot at, this leads to Owen dying but giving young Connor notes that contain evidence against a corrupt mob boss-who appears in some small scenes that’s oddly played by Tyler Perry.
Connor escapes the accident and eventually encounters Hannah deep in the woods as a forest fire is on the verge of spreading rapidly. Hannah ends up protecting the boy, in which they find their lives at stake from the assassins and the wildfire that they created. While the killers very much feel very familiar, they actually come across more as professional FBI agents than mobsters with their all-business approach.
Then comes the build-up and set-pieces, while never on the level of Villeneuve or the mastery that was found in Sicario, Sheridan lacks the technical skills to stage astonishing action sequences, specifically build up, that relies too much on dialogue in which Villeneuve didn’t rely to build impressive tension with less lazy cuts, but with choreographed staging and utilized silence. Upon the release of Sicario, it was difficult to weigh in just how much of the film anchored on Sheridan or Villeneuve, but over the years, with Villeneuve becoming more of a visual artist that has put him on the forefront as one of the most acclaimed and fascinating directors working today due to his craftsmanship, where Sheridan coaxes his own directed films with solid performances that is focused more on dialogue, character depth, exploring his characters demons, and selling the narrative more than showcasing a technical side. Villeneuve on the other hand was able to pull it all off into masterpiece terrain with the great Sicario.
All around Those Who Wish Me Dead does resonate due to an impressive performance from Jolie, who brings some emotional weight on her past traumas. Despite missing the tension, the climatic standoff feels more pedestrian than tension building, and the raging forest fire doesn’t quite live up to the potential it could have. I can only imagine if this film was helmed by a director great with set-pieces, say in the hands of Villeneuve himself or Brian De Palma–it would have been breathtaking. Despite some lackluster or disappointing executions in some areas, Sheridan’s material is still anchored by solid writing, detailed character depth, and a commanding Jolie and Little who are both very sympathetic and likable characters. It might not feel as bold or fresh as you would hope, but Those Who Wish Me Dead is an adequate and watchable Hollywood action-thriller that feels like a nice-throwback to an era that didn’t depend entirely on franchise, remakes, or superheroes.