A film review by Craig J. Koban August 31, 2021


2021, R, 100 mins.

Angelina Jolie as Hannah Faber  /  Finn Little as Connor Casserly  /  Aidan Gillen as Jack Blackwell  /  Nicholas Hoult as Patrick Blackwell  /  Medina Senghore as Allison Sawyer  /  Jon Bernthal as Ethan Sawyer

Directed by Taylor Sheridan  /  Written by Sheridan, Charles Leavitt, and Michael Koryta, based on Koryta's novel of the same name




I was utterly floored when I discovered during my screening of THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD that this thriller was directed by Taylor Sheridan, the same man that has written some of the best films of recent memory in SICARIO and HELL OR HIGH WATER on top of penning and directing one of the most overlooked gems of the last several years in WIND RIVER.  Those films were textbook and masterful exercises in nail biting tension and thoughtfully intricate character development, which, at the very least, should have translated well to this wilderness survival thriller.  Now, the main reason why I was "floored" watching THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD is because it's thoroughly silly and conceptually mediocre.  This is as qualitatively distant from those other aforementioned Sheridan films as one could get, and it makes for one crushingly disappointing watch. 

Perhaps overshadowing Sheridan's involvement was that of star Angelina Jolie, and aside from her work in the recent MALEFICENT films for Disney she really hasn't starred in that many high marquee projects lately.  THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD is considerably more low marquee and fly in under the radar than something for the House of Mouse, of course, and it certainly is a treat to see the pushing 50 actress still manage to carve out a sizeable and authentic screen presence in an action heavy role here.  If anything, Jolie is one of the very few winning elements in Sheridan's film, playing a character that's been through the psychological ringer and still feels the nagging side effects of PTSD.  The Oscar winning actress doesn't miss too many beats portraying this flawed and mentally tortured, but physically determined and highly resilient hero.  She manages to consistently outshine the substandard material that she's given in Sheridan's screenplay (which he co-scripted with Charles Leavitt and Michael Koryta, based on a book of the same name by the latter).  It's indeed wonderful to see Jolie quarterback and lead the charge of this entire affair, but it's a damn shame that her commendably committed performance is not harnessed in a far better film. 

Jolie plays Hannah Faber, a Montana firefighter that specializes in dealing with devastating forest fires.  Doing this type of highly dangerous work requires a certain type of courageous personality type...or one that simply throws caution to the wind when facing said dangers...and Hannah certainly fits the bill.  She has a reputation around her colleagues for being a crazy loose cannon, which, unfortunately for her, led to a major lapse in judgment while battling one hellish blaze that resulted in the tragic death of a couple of kids.  Her carelessness led to her demotion and becoming a hard boozer, both of which has led her spiraling down into self-implosion.  Her latest assignment is painfully routine: She has to work solo at a very remote outpost in the middle of nowhere to monitor the weather and keep a lookout for potential forest fires...and that's about it.  She desperately wants to get back into the think of things as a firefighter, but she's such damaged goods that jumping back into that saddle becomes more difficult by the day. 



Concurrent to this story is a subplot involving a "forensic accountant" named Owen (Jake Weber), who is forced to flee his big city home with his young son in Connor (Finn Little) when he discovers that nefarious forces want to murder him and his family for uncovering some very shady and politically damaging finances that he discovered while working for the DA.  While Owen and Connor escape their home, they're doggedly stalked by a pair of hired assassins (played by Nicolas Hoult and Aiden Gillan), who will stop at absolutely nothing to hunt down their prey and exterminate them with extreme prejudice.  They manage to track them down to the wilds of Montana, and without given away too much little Connor ends up permanently separated from his dad and fending for himself all alone in the woods...that is until Hannah herself spots the vulnerable child on patrol. 

One of the many problems with THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD is the whiplash effect that the scripting has on viewers: It literally yanks us back and forth from multiple narrative tangents and struggles to find a cohesive manner of tying them all together with reasonable symmetry.  When the film isn't honed in on Hannah it jumps to the accountant and the kid...and then to the killers on their tails...and then back to Hannah...and then to other introduced characters, like Owen's brother-in-law Ethan (Jon Berthal) and his pregnant wife in Allison (Mediana Senghore)....and then back to Hannah...and so on and so on.  On top of this is the fact that the villainous element in this thriller is really cookie cutter and vanilla bland.  This is not helped by the casting, half of which works.  Aiden Gillen from GAME OF THRONES is fairly credible as a hot headed murderer with an itchy trigger finger, but his cohort in Nicolas Hoult is rarely believable as a maniacal goon for hire.  He's simply not intimidating at all as a sociopath.  That, and the central plot that sets these madmen on the trail of Owen and his son seems very thinly developed, outside of Owen having knowledge that could take down powerful people...and not much else.  The bad guys and their motives are so poorly delineated here that when Tyler Perry himself shows up in a blink or you'll miss him cameo as the hitmen's boss - and then never appears again - you're left scratching you head in sheer puzzlement. 

Sheridan's co-written script is built upon some really, really predictable plot contrivances.  You just know that the smokejumper with a pure heart, but damaged psyche that once lost kids on the job will become this on-the-run kid's protector, leading to a preordained redemption arc.  You also just know that the brother-in-law of the hunted Owen and his wife will cross paths with the murderous thugs while they're in pursuit (this also leads to many violent scenes showing this pregnant woman being beaten and battered by the protagonists, which seems more cheaply sensationalistic than scary).  Added in is the unavoidable forest fire that's set by the villains, which threatens the lives of all of the protagonists and countless others, which forces Hannah to come to immediate terms with her past occupational demons.  At the very least, the core dynamic between Hannah and Connor is well handled on an acting level alone (young Finn Little gives and takes with his much older and more experienced co-star to thankless levels and gives a fairly solid performance), not to mention that the VFX to conjure up the raging forest fire hellscape is pretty convincing.   

Still, what really struck me so negatively about THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD was simply how lacking this film is in terms of having a basic understanding of how mass forest fires - or fires in general - work, or how these courageous people battle these seemingly unstoppable blazes.  We rarely get insights into what goes into their profession or how they stop these fires in the first place, and layered into this are some unfathomably ridiculous moments involving Hannah trying to protect Connor from the worst that nature throws at them.  She hysterically and nonsensically survives not one, but two very close encounters with lightning strikes on the ground, which would have sent most mortal human beings to the hospital.  My personal favorite moment of howl inducing incredulity involves the perpetually injured Hananh and Connor outrunning the worst part of the forest fire flames that seem to be spreading faster than any human could run.  The most intelligence insulting occurrence in THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD shows the aftermath of this gargantuan fire.  This natural inferno is shown as being incomprehensibly large and relentless in its spread, but in the single morning after its birth it's completely put out and extinguished, despite no rain and no scenes involving a mass effort by multiple parties to get it under control.  Considering how so many out of control forest fires have been making headlines across Canada and the U.S., this film's presentation of them as a simplistic device to move the plot forward (and be rectified with implausible ease) could easily offend some viewers.   

Honestly and in closing, I expected a whole hell of lot more out of Sheridan considering the his past resume.  With THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD as well as his co-scripting duties on this year's equally misshapen Amazon spy thriller TOM CLANCY'S WITHOUT REMORSE (which I neglected to mention earlier) I'm now starting to wonder if most of the luster he brought to his great films is starting to wane.  Once you strip away Jolie's participation from the mix and what she brings to the table here then what we're essentially left with barely feels like it attains the moniker of a disposable direct-to-VOD release.  Maybe I was expecting too much attention to realism in this genre effort, but with Sheridan's name attached and in the driver seat I have come to demand certain levels of quality control.  I rarely found THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD intense...or thrilling...or involving, and it builds towards a climax that's dutifully and dully manufactured.  That, and as alluded to before, this is a stupendously silly film at times that becomes unintentionally funny for how illogically it unfolds.  That descriptor has no business being attributed to a Taylor Sheridan film.  

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