I do not have sex with a man I have seen shit in the woods.
It seems so rare and captivating when true movie stars exist. Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Jane Fonda and dozens of other true superstars have all commanded the screen and been auteurs of their own images and output since nearly the beginning of cinema. But it’s always been harder for women. So many promising actresses have had breakout performances and then languished in limbo until they could be cast as mothers or grandmothers. Luckily a few actresses are able to break free from that awful pattern.
All that to say, Angelina Jolie has had a hell of a career. She’s worked steadily, including directorial efforts, voicework, big budget hits, indie flops. That’s why it’s refreshing to see her lead the kind of film in which Tom Cruise, Nick Cage, or John Travolta would have starred in during the ‘90s. Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021) doesn’t even come close to reinventing the wheel, but it does what it wants to do well, and it’s a great showcase for Jolie’s natural charm.
Jolie plays Hannah Faber, a smokejumper who has been so rattled by witnessing three children dying in a forest fire that she’s been posted in a lookout tower until she can pass a psych evaluation. Hannah is haunted by what happened—we witness a few fast-paced flashbacks to the awful events—but she still has an easy rapport with fellow smokejumpers Ben (James Jordan) and Ryan (Tory Kittles), as well as a friendly-but-fraught relationship with her ex-boyfriend and current local Deputy Sheriff, Ethan (Jon Bernthal). The movie establishes these relationships quickly and smartly by centering them on Hannah’s current mental state.
I’m a sucker for a pulpy genre piece with interesting set pieces and fun characters. I absolutely adore Elmore Leonard. So when I call this an Elmore Leonard ripoff, I don’t mean it negatively. Taylor Sheridan, the director and co-writer, by adapting the film from a book of the same name by Michael Koryta, keeps that Leonard flavor. It’s especially evident when we meet our two antagonists. The experienced Jack (Aidan Gillen) and the younger but equally competent Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) are straight out of a Leonard novel, if slightly lacking the personality he loves to pump into his villains. They’re two good actors that bounce off of each other well, and it’s fun to watch them lay out the procedural aspects of their deadly day-to-day job.
The story itself comes across as wanting to be more twisted and complicated than it is. It’s fairly straightforward. Owen (Jake Weber) is a forensic accountant that works for the District Attorney. After the latter is killed by some very rich and dangerous men, they make Owen their next target. Owen takes his son Connor (Finn Little) on the run to the only person he knows might be able to help: his dead wife’s brother, Ethan. Complicated family relationships maybe, but from there it’s an easy straight line to where all of these parties collide.
As I mentioned ealier, Jolie is a natural star. She’s convincing as easygoing, tortured, funny, a badass, distressed… she can do it all. Bernthal is also a natural talent, and it’s wild to me that his scene-stealing supporting roles haven’t led to a starring vehicle bigger than Netflix’s The Punisher (2017-2019). He does have a fantastically tense, unarmed standoff with Jack and Patrick that plays perfectly to his strengths. The two MVP’s of the film are Connor and Ethan’s pregnant wife, Allison (Medina Senghore). Little’s Connor avoids all of the typical “child actor” tropes. He has fantastic chemistry with Weber and Jolie and he nails every single emotional moment he’s given. It’s rare that a child actor is a bright spot in a movie like this, even rarer when he’s the best part.
Sengore was a nice surprise. When the assassins visited her home, I thought for sure that she was a goner–another wife (pregnant wife, at that) sacrificed to a genre built on men taking revenge on the violence done to women they know. I was pleasantly surprised though.
I like Taylor Sheridan’s movies, but they play with genres and conventions that can very often feel sexist, or at least perpetuate sexist tropes. With other directors, he’s had success with those tropes being twisted more into commentary or left dangling as a weakness of storytelling. I’ve been impressed with Sheridan as a writer, but his directing leaves a bit to be desired. He needs to learn to better subvert his work and find the more interesting aspects of the stories and characters, instead of presenting them matter-of-factly. He wants to be Elmore Leonard and James Ellory by way of Louis L’Amour, which I would fucking love. But Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016) are heads and shoulders above Wind River (2017) and Yellowstone (2018-present), and unfortunately Those Who Wish Me Dead is closer to the latter two.
There’s a seriousness to Sheridan’s material, even when it appears “goofy”, that works really well when filtered through other directors. I think he’d absolutely be a great Elmore Leonard of film, but he’s stuck too much on being Cormac McCarthy. There are some solid action beats, however, and the CGI forest fires were distracting occasionally, but they did a good enough job of keeping me interested in the main action that I didn’t care. Some legitimate shootouts and car stunts keep the action going steady, although I think there was a lot of potential in a scene with Hannah and Connor running across an open field during a thunderstorm that the film didn’t capitalize on.
Ultimately, Those Who Wish Me Dead has the feeling of a throwback. Increasingly, in the era of movies flattened to death by studio interference, I’m way more interested in movies that feel like throwbacks to a certain era. This is the kind of film I’d catch 15 minutes-in on some random cable channel and spend a small chunk of my Sunday casually watching. It isn’t the highest praise, but it absolutely hits the spot.
THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD
- Director: Taylor Sheridan
- Writers: Michael Koryta, Charles Leavitt, Taylor Sheridan
- Based On: Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta
- Stars: Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Nicholas Hoult, Aidan Gillen, Jon Bernthal, Medina Senghore, Jake Weber