Those Who Wish Me Dead is eminently watchable and rife with brutal genre spectacle, but never quite manages the depth of Sheridan’s prior work.
In a time where cinemas around the world have steadily found themselves reopening to a viewership desperate for catch-up on long-delayed releases, Taylor Sheridan’s follow-up to 2017’s succinct and suspenseful Wind River delivers exactly what it promises to do. The title embraces an ominous quality, hinting at unseen forces lurking just out of frame and which portend nothing but malice and suffering. Heralding the summer blockbuster season after a sordidly lacking April — alongside Joe Wright’s legendary The Woman in the Window (debuting on Netflix the same day as Sheridan’s on HBO Max) — Those Who Wish Me Dead embodies just enough of an air of sizzling mystery to tickle the pleasure centers of the popcorn-crunching, adrenaline-seeking brain without the hassle of unnecessarily burdensome relevance to cultural and political reality. That is not to say that the film was dead before it even graced our tablet screens, or that the reality of pandemic-induced viewing habits has inexplicably made it out to be yet another generic exercise purposed for a streaming service’s profit maximization. As it stands, Those Who Wish Me Dead offers a pleasantly solid outing into thriller territory, featuring competent action sequences, convincing performances, and a sturdy hardiness to boot; but given Sheridan’s past screenwriting credentials and their estimable results, his latest doesn’t quite leave a sizeable imprint.
Two separate narratives converge within the film: Hannah (Angelina Jolie), a smokejumper assigned to man a watchtower in the wilderness of Montana, struggles to come to terms with a forest fire mishap that left three civilians dead, while preteen Connor (Finn Little) finds himself whisked away from school-life normalcy by his jittery father Owen (Jake Weber) as they traverse the country in search of safety. Owen has been identified as a target by some nefarious goons of the establishment who have been tasked with his elimination at all costs, for his role as forensic investigator in an undisclosed and ostensibly high-profile political case. Those Who Wish Me Dead opens with Hannah’s disjointed nightmare of the fire as she wakes up, reeling from the miscalculated wind trajectory that doomed her rescue mission from the start. Subsequently, the viewer is introduced to two FBI agents, a father-son duo played by Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult who cheerfully visit and then vacate a suburban neighborhood, but not before blowing one of its houses up. Having murdered the district attorney, they hone in on his investigator, who possesses incriminating evidence and plans to turn it over to the news. Owen and Connor, having gotten word of the murder via the morning news, head for the only place they can trust: a survival school not too far from Hannah’s watchtower, owned by Owen’s brother-in-law — sheriff Ethan (Jon Bernthal) — and his pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore).
Like he did with Wind River, Sheridan accords his screenplay (adapted from Michael Koryta’s eponymous novel) a taut violence that frequently veers towards the brutal. The agents, vested with more than just hardened expertise, exude an inhuman ruthlessness as they stop at nothing to thwart Owen’s pursuit of justice, willingly slaughtering innocent passers-by and attempting to gun down Connor along with his father. Where Those Who Wish Me Dead diverges with Wind River, however, is in its banal setup; the latter, investigating with harrowing empathy the perpetuation of violence against Native American women, proves more engaging than the former’s plying of an emotional bare minimum onto a genre vehicle of vicious pursuit. From a more critical standpoint, the film merely engenders an overlap between Hannah’s overwhelming PTSD and Connor’s horrific brushes with death, without developing either in relation to the other. Naturally, given Jolie’s high-profile casting, something has to burn for her presence to be lit, and so a forest fire is engineered right next to the killing grounds both veteran and rookie survivor must escape from.
There is nothing inherently insipid about Those Who Wish Me Dead, especially when pitted against the countless other flicks out there which revolve around the same few gunfighting tropes and execute them with varying degrees of stylistic incompetence. In fact, its unusual brutality serves as implicit commentary on the immoral efficacy of most law enforcement types, whose preordained duty — perhaps by choice, but always by consequence — is to enforce the law rather than naïvely protect those under it. Apart from this, the film’s blockbuster structure ensures that viewers identify with its protagonists not so much through story as through spectacle: the shootouts, cat-and-mouse chases, and imminent pain of death bond Connor and Hannah out of sheer necessity. This sense of spectacle is reinforced in the way Sheridan never explicitly addresses the contents of Owen’s evidence, preferring to distill his indictment of systemic corruption into the physical generics of grey-collar violence substituting as a front for the blueprint specifics of white-collar crime. And so, though watchable to the extreme and even frequently discomfiting, Those Who Wish Me Dead doesn’t quite strike enough fear and emotion as would befit the condemned.
You can currently catch Taylor Sheridan’s Those Who Wish Me Dead in theaters or streaming on HBO Max.