Taylor Sherdian’s latest is a comedown from the standards he set for himself

By: Steve Pulaski

Taylor Sheridan’s Those Who Wish Me Dead revolves around Hannah (Angelina Jolie), a party-hardy forest-firefighter (aka a “smokejumper”) working in Montana. Her one-of-the-guys exterior chameleons a troubled interior, as she’s still haunted by a failed mission where the wind direction changed and multiple lives were lost. The only person who even remotely comprehends what she’s going through is Ethan (Jon Bernthal), a local sheriff married to Allison (Medina Senghore), who runs a school for survivalists.

Meanwhile, two efficient assassins, Jack (Aidan Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult), pose as gas-workers and successfully blow up a DA’s house within minutes of their introduction. Forensic accountant Owen Casserly (Jake Weber) knows he’s their next target after the information he’s unearthed apparently incriminates a lot of high-profile individuals. On a whim, he takes off with his son Connor (Finn Little) to hideout with Ethan and Allison. Early on, the killers catch up to them, leaving Connor an orphan, wandering through the vast Montana wilderness.

Connor eventually stumbles upon Hannah, working in an observation tower overlooking the forests, and the two join forces amidst a storm that takes out the electronic equipment. Jack and Patrick are coming for Connor, and such tactics as torturing the pregnant Allison and forcing Ethan to lead them to the boy aren’t beyond them.

If you’re at all familiar with Sheridan’s enviable filmography — including the masterful Hell or High Water, the quintessential drug cartel flick Sicario, and the meditative Wind River — you can probably discern there’s three major storylines happening all at once. All are satisfactory, even if the information Connor’s father uncovered is ultimately one big MacGuffin. Those Who Wish Me Dead is at its most alive when Gillen and Hoult are on-screen. They resist all urge to overplay their cold-blooded characters. They’re strictly business. Even Gillen getting his skin fried at one point doesn’t shift his caustic demeanor into the territory of outlandish behavior. Both men are icy and unnerving presences, and the film crackles with intensity whenever they’re present.

Apropos of nothing, but Tyler Perry nails his sole scene as the hitmakers’ boss. It would’ve been nice to see him granted a few more. He has a peculiar knack for nailing his moments in projects on which he doesn’t write nor direct.

Contrarily, Angelina Jolie and (particularly) Finn Little are strong independently, but both lack believable chemistry. Outside of desperation, there’s nothing tethering Hannah and Connor together; there’s no strong, emotional bond outside of Hannah symbolically moving on from her past.

Therein is the greatest problem with Those Who Wish Me Dead. It lacks the textures we’ve come to expect from Sheridan. Hell or High Water felt lived-in with its thick-tongued southern accents and comprehensive depiction of the American South. Wind River reminded us of the gravity one death can bring to both a family and a larger, neglected community. Those Who Wish Me Dead is popcorn entertainment by comparison. Sheridan and his fellow co-writers (Michael Koryta, who wrote the novel of the same name, and Charles Leavitt) don’t even bother to humanize smokejumpers as people who do such an extraordinarily difficult job that asking them to assimilate back into conventional society would be a damn-near impossible challenge. It all builds to an ending that doesn’t match the anticipation that builds and builds for roughly 80 minutes before the surprisingly brief climax.

That said, Sheridan’s direction loses no points. Him and cinematographer Ben Richardson (who worked on Wind River) know the precise angles for which to shoot specific scenes, be them aerial shots of forests or close-ups of altercations where detail is necessary. Awe-inspiring shots of forest fires detail their rapid, uncontrolled spread. Interiors such as Hannah’s tower or Ethan and Allison’s homey cabin are given identity. There’s so much going on in terms of characters and plot that you’re liable to miss the nuances Sheridan and company surely fussed over.

If it sounds like I’m being hard on Those Who Wish Me Dead, it comes from a place of respect and admiration for Sheridan, who I still contend will one day be the deserved recipient of many Oscars for a film not-yet-produced. He’s a unicorn in American cinema, making classically minded action flicks unassociated with superheroes nor pre-existing IP. He does so with a strong sense of characters, location, and narrative construction. Sheridan’s middling efforts are still far more exciting than most actioneers we get in any given year. Nonetheless, Those Who Wish Me Dead is more turbulent and less refined than his previous efforts.

NOTE: Those Who Wish Me Dead is now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max until June 13th.

Grade: C+

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sV6VNNjBkcE [/embedyt]