Principal Cast : Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Jon Bernthal, Aiden Gillen, Nicholas Hoult, Jake Weber, Medina Senghore, Tyler Perry, James Jordan, Tory Kittles, Boots Southerland.
Angelina Jolie plays an alcoholic PTSD-afflicted fire jumper in the Montana wilderness in Taylor Sheridan’s uneven take on Michael Kortya’s novel of the same name, Those Who Wish Me Dead. Sheridan is a director of considerable cache around the Fernby Films offices, having written a number of remarkably tense, pointed dramatic works – Sicario, its sequel, and Hell or High Water are the three most obvious – and his ability to create unrelenting tension out of the most ordinary of situations, or average people, is remarkable. Sheridan is a man who eschews lots of exposition when he can simply focus on character, and use those characters to inform the story and plot through action rather than word. This film exemplifies that endeavour, even when it doesn’t quite meet expectations, for a lot of the plot is referred to in small bits of dialogue that doesn’t explicitly state what’s going on, and I applaud Sheridan’s directorial style in spite of my disdain for what transpires.
Jolie is smoke-jumper Hannah, who works a fire lookout tower in a Montana national park. She is recovering from a past trauma, having to watch members of her own team perish in a previous fire, as well as a trio of young civilians trapped by the flames. Her ex, Sheriff’s Department officer Ethan (Jon Bernthal), is awaiting the imminent birth of his baby daughter with his new partner, Allison (Medina Senghore), and their relationship is fractious at best. Forensic accountant Owen (Jake Weber) escapes Fort Lauderdale with evidence pointing to an unseen conspiracy, pursued by two assassins, Jack (Aiden Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult), who are ordered by their handler Arthur (Tyler Perry) to stop at nothing to kill both Owen and his son, Connor (Finn Little), who has been dragged along for his own safety. Connor escapes pursuit into the Montana wilderness only for the pair of deadly killers to start a massive forest fire, an inferno which sweeps away everything in its path, including all hope of survival.
It’s weird to watch a movie in which Angelina headlines but isn’t the focus of the story. Obviously the film’s budget was keyed into her signing on the project, but in truth a lot of what transpires in Those Who Wish Me Dead has nothing at all to do with her. In fact, her character didn’t even need to be in it, and it would have worked out probably fine. I mean, a young kid on the run from assassins is a pretty compelling story in and of itself, and when the film works on this element the movie positively sings. The ancillary work by Jolie, enabled by Jon Bernthal’s less complimentary supporting character and the crisp work done by Medina Senghore as the world’s most physically capable full-term pregnant woman, feel undercooked when compared to the work involving Finn Little, Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult. Gillen and Hoult almost feel like they’ve come from a completely different movie, such is the tonal shift between their storyline and that of Jolie’s; she’s a frosty, angry character here, unlikeable and emotionally distant, which makes her awkward buddy-picture routine with Little’s Connor in the third act never quite work like it perhaps should have.
I recognise the film is based off a novel that probably worked really well with its competing storylines on the printed page. Unlike the printed page, however, tangents on film are a tricky thing to manage, and having two distinctly different plot lines vying for viewer attention elicits problems from the very first moment. Why we’re meant to give a shit about the kid, or why how he’s going to link into the Jolie smoke-jumper storyline, is clumsily handled and projected from the very first flashback of Hannah’s past tragedy, making the film’s climax almost a fait accompli for an intelligent viewer. Streamlining the script’s duelling plot arcs, or shifting the focus either to one or the other, not both, might have enabled us to attach to one of the various characters in the movie, instead of none of them. For five or ten minutes we’re spending with Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult slaughtering their way through the American landscape, we’re also spending five or ten minutes with Jolie stuck up in a fire tower overlooking the forest, or Jon Bernthal’s square-jawed cop character piecing together the clues as to what the assassins are doing, and it’s like trying to mix oil, water and sand. They just don’t mix well, try as he might, and poor Sheridan’s film sputters and spurts with occasional action frisson but ultimately remains dormant for protracted periods.
Jolie looks either angry or bored: angry she signed up to this film, or bored with the role, and if it’s the latter I agree with her in that it’s a pretty thinly written part a fair way beneath her talent. If she’s in this for the action, there’s hardly any of which we can see her cut loose or show her stuff, and the emotional arc of her PTSD is poorly developed – and resolved – on the screen. Jon Bernthal plays his role of Montana cop with the exact kind of straight-laced moral fortitude the part might engender. Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult are creepy, sinister and brutal as the assassins. Jake Weber, as Connor’s ill-fated father, is solid in a role demanding he drive a car the whole time. Tyler Perry pops as a generic CIA-type handler role, but he only has about two lines and none of them are any good. All these actors are good enough but the film never asks much of them, and asks even less of the audience to believe in them. There’s only one person in the film I was rooting for and she was six months pregnant, rode a horse, and took down one of the assassins while barely raising a sweat. Righteous maternal fury, I guess.
Sheridan’s direction is tenuously realistic and reliant on some pretty dodgy visual effects. The film boasts an immense conflagration rampant through the forest, a protracted firestorm chasing Jolie and Little through the trees as if it’s a monster hunting them down, and I admit to chortling at just how agile the kid, who’s all of about thirteen or so, manages to be at outpacing such an inferno. Let alone Jolie’s Hannah, who’s been dropped from a height, struck by lightening, and suffers stabs, shots, punches and kicks to her body that would kill any other living being. The violence of the film is pretty brutal, with several people being murdered quite perfunctorily by the two assassins, and as was achieved with Hell Or High Water the shocking nature of such acts isn’t shied away from. The film’s tone is a mix of Sicario’s brutal seriousness and the conniptions of Howie Long’s 1998 inflamed D-movie classic Firestorm; the blend doesn’t work, and as a result the film feels too limited in either direction. It’s not potent enough a crime thriller, and it’s too silly an action thriller, so in the end you just throw your hands up and wait to see who lives through it all.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is a schizophrenic thriller filled with sputtering ideas and half-cooked performances, that underwhelms when unable to latch onto a singular idea and run with it. Sheridan’s direction – nay, his ambition – is too limited by his talent with a camera, and the film’s blazing third act is occasionally hilarious with poor visual effects. Fire is one digital tool Hollywood is still trying to perfect when it comes to computer effects, and this film is a great example of how it can all go so horribly wrong when deployed so ferociously. With characters I couldn’t care about, a diverting central plot that only merged too late into the movie, and a sour, displeasing tone to the movie overall, I found Those Who With Me Dead to be a significant…. misfire.