Photo: ‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’/Warner Bros. Pictures
A Hollywood A-lister starring as an abrasive lone-wolf grappling with long-repressed demons, a defenseless child emerging into their lives at the perfect moment to melt their heart, a squad of nameless assassins with outrageously large guns tailing them in hot pursuit, and an impending natural disaster just waiting in the wings to muck everything up. In 1991, you could not throw a stone in a movie theater without hitting the poster for a film that in some way fit the description above. In 2021, thirty years later, movies resembling this plot are scarce, and those that are made are often compositionally careless and exceedingly convoluted.
‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’
For better or worse, Taylor Sheridan’s ‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’ (2021) epitomizes the age-old adage “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to”. The sophomore feature from the director of 2017’s surprise hit ‘Wind River’ and Oscar-nominated screenwriter of both ‘Sicario’ (2015) and ‘Hell or High Water’ (2016), Sheridan’s latest sees a somewhat jagged and occasionally gauche yet ultimately effective return to the straightforward action-thrillers of yore.
Those expecting even the slightest shred of the nuance in Sheridan’s aforementioned previous filmography, dubbed the ‘Frontier Trilogy’ for their loosely connected yet equally powerful examinations of the final remnants of the American frontier in the outskirts of modern society, will likely be left sour and unfulfilled by the experience. But those entering with an open mind, or a primal desire to see Angelina Jolie finally return to her ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’ (2001) days and face off with a pair of unsympathetic hired guns, will find the film a simplistic yet satisfying reminder of why it’s still important to see the good-guy punch the bad-guy in the face.
A Plot That Sometimes Smolders and Action That Blazes Bright
Although the film boasts a plethora of incredibly capable actors, it occasionally falters in its decidedly choppy and unbalanced script. Sheridan often relies upon the loose emotional connection the audience has formed with Jolie and newcomer Finn Little as well as the hurried dynamic between their character’s unlikely partnership to provoke the audience beyond the given fear for their well-being and into a deeper empathic understanding.
While both characters certainly experience their fair share of trauma, the audience has inherent trouble buying into the weight of their baggage due to the uneven editing and accelerated pacing. In a stand-out performance in her first feature film role, Medina Senghore shines as the survivalist wife of John Bernthal’s Sheriff Sawyer, injecting the film with the emotional currency it requires to stay afloat and forgiving some of the rougher patches in the larger narrative.
But what the film lacks in general substance it conclusively replaces with rakish style. Despite a few admittedly incomplete VFX shots and the perpetual challenge of believably animating fire, ‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’ utilizes the stunning forests of rural Montana and crimson hues of the blistering inferno to great effect. Much of the film is tinged with a crisp combination of oranges and yellows blanketed in constant churning embers that perfectly underscore the intensity of the action unfolding on screen.
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With a number of bodacious set-pieces pitting Nicholas Hoult and Aiden Gillen against various members of the forest’s residents and an ultimate battle with the forest itself that pays off some of the smaller teases that pepper the film’s first act, there is more than enough energy to hold audience members attention even if they are not affectionately invested.
A Robust Cast Full of Solid Performances
Much less of the narrative rests on Jolie’s shoulders than one may assume by gaging the film’s posters or general marketing campaign, her character of Hannah Faber much more in line with the stoically phlegmatic action heroes of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. Her first action role since 2010’s ‘Salt’, the Oscar-winning actress places much more effort on physicality than sentimentality. The script is again muddled in its archetypical direction for her character, inserting some scattered one-liners amongst moments of quiet contemplation. Nevertheless, she delivers an overall strong and suitably reserved performance that surprisingly leaves plenty of room for her lesser-known co-stars.
As mentioned before, the principal cast is composed of adept actors and actresses both known and unknown who all slot into their roles neatly. Little, starring as the young boy on the run from respective stars of the ‘X-Men’ franchise and ‘Game of Thrones’ HBO series, Hoult and Gillen, as ruthless contract killers, Bernthal returning to work with Sheridan for a second time after ‘Wind River’, and the previously mentioned Senghore in a small but instantly memorable performance. While far from revolutionary, Hoult and Gillen offer exceedingly wicked turns as the one-dimensional death-dealers nipping at the heels of Jolie. Little too steps up to the plate in the time that he is given, more than holding his own in challenging scenes opposite experienced veterans like Jolie and Bernthal.
An Often Muddled Yet Ultimately Tender Message About Family
While it is true that some of the potentially emotional moments the film swings for sequentially fall flat, that is not to say that the film is without a clear central theme and lingering message. Throughout the film, the conceptual solace of family and the harrowing emotional detriment of solitude are time and time again reflected in Jolie and Little’s isolation, both self-enforced and tragically imposed. As Jolie enduringly points out towards the film’s middle, both characters are reeling from inexorable loss and frequented by the ghosts of the past so it does not have to be a point of contention. It is in this shared absence that the pair must learn to grow, both silencing the anguish within themselves and uniting together as a team in the face of the fast-approaching mercenaries and even faster-approaching wildfire.
While much controversy has stemmed from WarnerMedia’s shocking announcement late last year that all of the titles in their 2021 slate would undergo concurrent releases in movie theaters and on HBO Max, and while many of the films that have fallen under this policy have suffered in critical response and general popularity, ‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’ is tailor-made for a casual living room viewing. A rare exception, the film is best enjoyed as a throwback to the ‘dime-a-dozen’ action classics of decades past than as another one of Sheridan’s contemplative portraits of the desperation of modern America’s farthest fringes. While sure not to shock, it is sure to keep audiences engaged and give back to them what they are willing to give to it.
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, John Bernthal, Aiden Gillen, Nicholas Hoult, Medina Senghore
Cinematographer: Ben Richardson | Editor: Chad Galster
Director: Taylor Sheridan | Writers: Charles Leavitt, Taylor Sheridan, Michael Koryta, | Producers: Steven Zaillian, Kevin Turen, Taylor Sheridan, Garrett Basch, Aaron L. Gilbert
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Andrew Valianti is a writer and an aspiring producer-director, and all-around film lover. While writing both features and reviews for the Hollywood Insider, Andrew has focused on the intersection of cinema and politics as they relate to empowering diverse stories and viewpoints. Through both study and practice, Andrew has seen first hand the many ways in which film and media can have a positive and meaningful impact on everyday lives. His personal views align with the Hollywood Insider, as he views journalism as a means to empower and mobilize positive change rather than spread gossip or negativity. He believes that art ignites action and has sought to pursue stories that further this goal.