Those Who Wish Me Dead Synopsis: Still reeling from the loss of three lives, Hannah is a smokejumper who’s perched in a watchtower high above the Montana wilderness. She soon encounters Connor, a skittish boy who’s bloodied, traumatized, and on the run in the remote forest. As Hannah tries to bring him to safety, she’s unaware of the real dangers to follow: two relentless killers hunting Connor, and a fiery blaze consuming everything in its path.
From TV bit player to revered writer/director, Taylor Sheridan’s climb over the Hollywood mountaintop has been an incendiary journey. A duo of impressive screenplays (Sicario and the Best Picture nominee Hell or High Water) showcased Sheridan’s astute understanding of modern American zeitgeist. His balance between well-textured ideas and gritty, old-school entertainments parlayed the verging voice into a major presence on the big and small screen alike (Paramount’s Yosemite is somehow on its fourth season).
Sheridan’s rustic sensibility journeys onward with Those Who Wish Me Dead, a welcomed throwback to adult-driven popcorn thrillers of yesteryear. Meshing elemental infernos with a deadly conspiracy, Sheridan’s agreeably cheesy dynamics never reach their pulse-pounding peak.
Still, the film isn’t entirely joyless. Sheridan exhibits a mastery of intense setpieces, relying upon the same close-quarters gunplay and patient maneuvering behind his most accomplished work. Instead of mucking in dour realism, the craftsman amplifies his aesthetic with the perilous joys of grand, high-steaks storytelling. I love his blend of man vs. nature vs. man dynamics presented in the mold of unpretentious thrillers, with Sheridan’s uptempo pace self-awarely placing a premium on cinematic jolts above all else. This type of lean-and-mean crowdpleaser just doesn’t get made anymore despite their edge-of-your-seat entertainment value.
It’s got over-the-top sequences to spare, yet Those Who Wish Me Dead never connects on a fundamental level. Michael Koryta’s novel (adapted by him, Sheridan, and Charles Leavitt) drew in readers through its mixture of page-turning tension and substantive dynamics. Sadly, the novel’s big-screen counterpart is noticeably lacking in the latter department. A busy ensemble leaves little time for the central conceits to develop even a passable connection with audiences. The plot’s central mystery feels over-written and devoid of intrigue, while the supposed emotional crux between Hannah and Connor goes nowhere with their bare time together onscreen. The entire affair feels like it’s screaming for more focus and simplicity.
Films of this ilk shouldn’t be taken with the utmost seriousness. That being said, Those Who Wish Me Dead doesn’t possess the shameless charm to overcome stale writing. Angelina Jolie’s starring role calls for movie star energy, but the talented actress feels miscast as the smooth-talking firewoman. Aside from a few capable dramatic frames, Jolie spends a majority of the runtime posturing with an inauthentic dialect and over-the-top mannerisms. Movie stars often carried this type of low-rent effort during their heyday. Here, the lack of compelling presence sinks the narrative’s messy form (the supporting players, including Jon Bernthal, Nicholas Hoult, and Tyler Perry, have little room to make an impression).
Those Who Wish Me Dead operates like a disposable cable outing. The sheer camp value will entice some viewers, but the film’s flat, paper-thin delivery left me wanting more.
Those Who Wish Me Dead debuts in theaters and on HBO Max May 14th.
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