In an odd turn of events, Warner Bros. this year has come for the title of being the source for out-of-vogue thrills. With the Denzel Washington-lead manhunt potboiler The Little Things earlier this year, the studio now has delivered Those Who Wish Me Dead, the kind of slim, mid-budget boilerplate that Hollywood of yesteryear used to churn out regularly. Back in the ’90s specifically a movie of this nature probably would’ve starred Harrison Ford or Clint Eastwood, but today it features Angelina Jolie, shedding any sultry glamour to play a firefighter thrust into a different kind of deadly inferno. Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, whose body of work behind and in front of the camera has trafficked heavily in the time-honored clash between the forces on opposing sides of the law, this is a movie that feels contemporary only in release strategy: Which will see it released in both theaters and on HBO Max.
Jolie stars as Hannah Faber, a smokejumper (a parachuting firefighter) who has a figurative blaze consuming her: Relegated to a lookout tower in the aftermath of a containment operation gone wrong, Hannah now surveys the Montana landscape with simmering guilt, unable to get over three kids she couldn’t rescue from the flames. Yet a new fire is a brewing. A forensic accountant, Owen (Jake Weber), has uncovered a damning government cover-up. (The movie, in a characteristic omission of exposition, decides that we don’t really need the details. It’s entirely correct.) With his young son, Connor (Finn Little), in tow, Owen flees for Hannah’s literal neck of the woods, seeking protection from the local sheriff (Jon Bernthal) whom our heroine has a romantic past with.
Will Hannah get her shot at redemption by this time saving a child pursued by a different form of indifferent destruction? That’s as inevitable as the intersection of the film’s two plotlines, which Sheridan pulls together less gradually then he did the parallel threads of his impressive, Oscar-nominated screenplay for Hell or High Water. Those Who Wish Me Dead isn’t nearly as elegiacally poetic or rich in flavorful dialogue as that neo-Western. Nor does it possess the subversive cynicism of his script for Sicario or even the jurisdictional fascinations of his last directorial effort, Wind River. This is the most meat-and-potatoes the filmmaker has ever been, as his obsession with relentless pursuit and confrontation in America’s backcountry continues. Punching up a script by Charles Leavitt and Michael Koryta (the latter of whom wrote the source material of the same title), Sheridan shaves the plot to tis skeletal essence even as he revels a little too hard in hard-boiled banter early on. Unlike his past work, this one couldn’t in the slightest be confused for being Cormac McCarthy-esque.
For the most part, Those Who Wish Me Dead is lean and mean. The film’s mercenary professionalism extends to its clean but unremarkable staging, and it mirrors that of the villains, a pair of merciless hit men played by Nicholas Hoult and a slimy Aidan Gillen. Sheridan spends a considerable amount of the slender runtime in their cold-blooded company, trailing the two as they race after their target, methodically discuss plans of attack, and hunting the supporting cast, including the lawman and his steely, pregnant wife (Medina Senghore). Sheridan treats them like organic instruments of death, or maybe as the human equivalent of the roaring force of nature cutting a path of scorching annihilation through the trees during the film’s fiery second half.
Those Who Wish Me Dead also can be as thin as a twig: There’s a limit to its ruthless economy. For as unsentimental as Sheridan’s approach looks from a distance, everything with Jolie’s anguished Hannah feels hackneyed and even a little maudlin, especially once the movie pairs her off with Connor, the two trading commiserative stories and a few stray one-liners. As always when it comes to some tropes, a longtime absence from them can make find a fondness growing; that this throwback film scarcely resembles anything that the studios are bankrolling these days lends its modest pleasures some novelty, if not the leniency of nostalgia. But some trends never go entirely out of fashion, and pairing a haunted, fearless daredevil with a cute kid is the kind that probably should. But, for this entry at least, I won’t be wishing its death. As it teeters between being thinly generic and pleasantly minimalistic, Those Who Wish Me Dead ultimately is fierce in its unfussiness that makes it prime for future Saturday afternoon viewings.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is available in Theaters and to stream on HBO Max