An incredible pedigree of talent behind and in front of the camera can't elevate this silly, formulaic thriller into anything substantial.
- 🔸 Medina Senghore steals the film as the pregnant wife of the town sheriff who fights off and wins against two murderous captors.
- 🔸 Extremely questionable science drives the plot forward but also undermines audience believability.
- 🔸 Bad CGI and a generally shambling structure undermines the end result of what's an intriguing idea.
The pedigree of acting and filmmaking talent in Those Who Wish Me Dead is undeniable — cowriter and director Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water) cinematographer Ben Richardson (Mare of Easttown), and a cast that includes Angelina Jolie, Jon Bernthal, Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult and Jake Weber. But this adaptation of Michael Kortya’s novel of the same, which Kortya helped write, is one of the silliest movies I’ve seen in a long time — that much moreso because of the gravitas of its cast and crew. The common refrain goes ‘no one sets out to make a bad movie,’ but there are too many good people involved for this to be one, as Jolie clumsily navigates her way through this redemption story about a traumatized firefighter protecting a boy from assassins while a wildfire ravages the countryside. Her interest alone may have gotten the project greenlit, but whatever enthusiasm Jolie may have once had for the material gets unceremoniously snuffed out thanks to cryptic plotting, questionable science and too many bad CGI-fire special effects for a movie that uses so many of them.
Jolie plays Hannah Faber, a veteran smokejumper who elected to take a desk job — or the firefighting equivalent — after an incident where she watched a family gets burned up during a rescue attempt. Though she’s still an adventurer, she prefers maintaining a reclusive existence in a lookout tower, where she can monitor the Montana hills for fire and otherwise avoid human contact with people like her ex-boyfriend Ethan (Bernthal) who encourage her to re-enter the world of the living. But when Connor Casserly (Finn Little) and his father Owen (Weber) flee into the woods near her tower, Hannah must decide whether the PTSD she’s nursing is more powerful than her responsibilities as a firefighter to protect lives, especially after father-and-son assassins Jack (Gillen) and Patrick Blackwell (Hoult) show up with an assignment to murder them, and anyone who gets in their way, at all costs.
After successfully murdering Owen, Jack and Patrick sweep the countryside to find Connor, eventually enlisting Ethan to help in the search by threatening his pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore), and finally, starting a forest fire that ties up local authorities in rescue operations. But as the fire begins to close in on Hannah and Connor, she finds herself confronting a very similar set of circumstances that left her traumatized and regretful once before, this time not just with the possibility of another death on her hands, but very likely her own — either from fleeing the raging wildfires, or a bullet from one of the Blackwells’ guns.
Almost every element of this story feels at least vaguely familiar, from the grizzled expert traumatized by failure to the endangered innocent to the shadow organization sending murderers to eliminate witnesses from sharing destructive secrets. But even if the world of “smokejumpers” — individuals who parachute into wildfires to fight them — remains a relatively under-explored world cinematically, it’s only used as window dressing to the rest of these clichés, and the so-called survivalist expertise that Jolie’s character brings to the events in the story don’t ever seem more unique or advantageous than a person who half paid attention during an HR-mandated first aid presentation in a corporate office.
After being assigned to a lookout tower that doesn’t even have plumbing, Hannah escapes a lightning storm (don’t they have weather vanes?) by diving to the ground hundreds of feet below, of course destroying the satellite phone that connects her to civilization. Then, later in that same lightning storm, she advises a child to run across an open field like it’s a relay race between the two of them, whereupon she gets struck by lightning for a second time. These aren’t just dangerous choices for the characters, they’re irresponsible for the audience to watch; moreover, they follow her deploying a parachute while joyriding in the back of a pickup truck, one presumes in some demonstration of her bad ass fearlessness. What all of them really tell viewers is that she should immediately be relieved from any and all posts where other lives are at stake.
But the larger story follows Connor and his fight from the Blackwells, who are exactly the kind of black-ops assassins that exist in movies for organizations where it’s obliquely mentioned that they have ties to halls of power that would destroy the foundations of right and wrong. At one point, Owen writes down what is that he knows and instructs Connor not to read or reveal it until he can get in front of a television camera; this mystery drives the entire film — and then Sheridan decides not to share that moment when the opportunity arises. In the meantime, the only successful part of the mealy mouth bonding that occurs between Hannah and Connor comes when Hannah tries to explain why she’s so depressed and Connor responds by mentioning both of his parents are dead and there are murderers after him, ruining her attempts to feel sorry for herself.
That Jolie doesn’t invest much energy into Hannah’s arc further undercuts the dramatic weight of the journey the audiences goes on with her, but the rest of the cast is performing with the muted enthusiasm of a contractual obligation — especially Gillen, who’s played some version of this bad guy for so long that you have to wonder if he thinks that’s who he is in real life. That said, the one smart choice the movie makes is by casting Senghore as Bernthal’s pregnant wife, and then giving that character more agency and resourcefulness than literally everyone else on screen; not only does she escape capture from two men she’s right to be suspicious of, but rides in literally on a steed and rescues her husband and eventually Hannah and her little ward.
Unfortunately, the film looks like its makers overinvested in casting and consequently cut corners on everything else, worst of all fire effects used in hundreds of shots that look unrealistic or otherwise lousy. Not every film about or involving fire has look go to the lengths of Ron Howard’s 1991 film Backdraft, which mythologizes this elemental force, but even if you can’t ignite an entire Montana countryside, surely there’s a coordinator who can light a few local fires to give viewers a sense of authenticity. Of course, the movie completely ignores about the larger world once this little melodrama starts unfolding around Hannah’s lookout tower, so one supposes it stands to reason that the filmmakers did as well. But ultimately, Those Who Wish Me Dead is just a sloppy mess, starting with a title lumbering with self-importance, and concluding without revealing any of the secrets that might possibly have supported or elevated it.
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