Angelina Jolie’s charisma can counteract an awful lot of filmmaking flaws. She’s a dynamo in films like 1998’s Gia and 1999’s Girl, Interrupted, where her mixture of simmering anger and coy sensuality announced her cinematic arrival. Her smirking grin is practically its own character in Hackers, the Tomb Raider duo, and Disney’s live-action Maleficent franchise. During her romantic and cinematic partnership with Brad Pitt, we watched the white-hot flame of their relationship in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and then its downslope in By the Sea. Through it all, Jolie has always been uncontainably herself. Her very Jolie-ness — risk-taking, tenacious, motherly — is Taylor Sheridan’s saving grace in Those Who Wish Me Dead. Amid the paper-thin plot, stilted script, inartful editing, and imbalanced character development, Jolie stands unblemished. She isn’t the only good thing about the otherwise rote Those Who Wish Me Dead, but she doesn’t have much competition, either.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is Sheridan’s second screenplay credit this year after the Michael B. Jordan vehicle Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse, and it shares the same flaws in execution. While Without Remorse feels like a facsimile of Sheridan’s Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado in its predictably cynical America-first ideology, Those Who Wish Me Dead is a kind of remix of his 2017 drama Wind River. Is setting a film in America’s heartland, giving the protagonist a rugged career, and spewing some broadly anti-authoritarian stuff now all that Sheridan is capable of doing? He’s been up and down since 2016’s perfect Hell or High Water, but has he fallen prey to his own hype? The narrative muddiness of Those Who Wish Me Dead suggests so: Sheridan is moving in lockstep with his own preferences, but not offering much that’s unique to his oeuvre.
Those Who Wish Me Dead features a lot of familiar faces from the Sheridan ensemble: Jon Bernthal previously appeared in Sicario and Wind River. James Jordan was in Wind River and Sheridan’s popular-among-dads series Yellowstone. And Tory Kittles acted alongside Sheridan on Sons of Anarchy. Viewers will notice plenty of American flags, horses, pickup trucks, grizzled cops, and steaks for breakfast — all the cowboy stuff Sheridan likes to fetishize. And as in Sicario, there’s a Strong Female Character™ unapologetically shouldering her way into a male-dominated profession, and doing it better than they do. Jolie has two modes in this movie: cocky badass, and ferocious mother. Her suitability for both roles only barely makes up for how simplistic Sheridan’s writing really is.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is a loose adaptation of the 2014 novel by Michael Koryta, who shares screenwriting credits with Sheridan and Charles Leavitt (of Warcraft and Seventh Son). The film follows smoke-jumper Hannah (Jolie), an elite firefighter stationed in Montana. After she misread a fire a year ago, resulting in the deaths of three boys and a failed psych evaluation, the still-traumatized Hannah has left team leadership behind. Her days now include drinking and joking around with a protective (all-male) circle of fellow smoke-jumpers. You can practically see them dissolve into goo when she refills her red Solo cup and exclaims, “I’m feeling naughty.” Her ex-boyfriend, Park County Sheriff Ethan Sawyer (Bernthal), is worried about her risky behavior — like standing up in the bed of a speeding truck and opening her parachute, launching herself up into the air in a dizzying spin. She’s unapologetically self-destructive, so he hopes a summer spent alone in a remote fire tower, watching for signs of forest fires, lightning strikes, or other dangerous phenomena, will do her some good.
While Ethan worries and Hannah acts out, assassins Jack (Aidan Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) start trailing forensic accountant Owen (Jake Weber) and his 12-year-old son Connor (Finn Little). What Owen has learned about the financial dealings of the assassins’ boss, Arthur (Tyler Perry), could — well, actually, the script isn’t really clear on this. Arthur is a bad guy, and he’s mixed up with a bunch of government officials, and yadda yadda yadda. It doesn’t really matter, and the movie doesn’t really care. Owen has to die, and Jake and Patrick are sent to do the job.
After a series of visually repetitive drone shots cement the fact that Owen and Connor are driving across America to Montana (we get it, Sheridan, there are a bunch of fields and pine trees in the middle of the country!), these two stories come together. Owen is Ethan’s brother-in-law, and his plea for help draws in Ethan and his pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore). And when a lost Connor stumbles across Hannah, her maternal instinct kick in, along with a desire to right the wrongs of the prior year. As Jack and Patrick do whatever they can to literally smoke out their targets, from murdering civilians to setting a forest fire, Hannah tries to redeem her past mistakes by saving lives instead of losing them. “I was a fucking coward,” she said of the fire where she failed. This time, she’s determined not to be.
Sheridan has two major flaws as a filmmaker, and both hamper Those Who Wish Me Dead. First is an overly affectionate attitude toward his villains (see: Benicio del Toro in Sicario; Guy Pearce in Without Remorse) that results in those characters receiving more screen time than they really need. Those Who Wish Me Dead opens with Gillen and Hoult’s characters and spends time with them on the road and on the ground in Montana, but doesn’t make them unique or interesting in any way.
Their methodologies aren’t groundbreaking; their dialogue isn’t nuanced. Sheridan just seems to think we would want to hear conversation after conversation of Jack and Patrick complaining to each other about how much they “hate this fucking place,” but why? Martin McDonagh already perfected existentially concerned assassins in Seven Psychopaths, and Sheridan’s attempts pale in comparison. Every time the film returns to Jack and Patrick, Sheridan unintentionally undercuts their menace, ultimately making them so familiar that they lose all danger. (And in what world would a character played by Jon Bernthal be unable to disarm a character played by Aidan Gillen? Littlefinger besting Frank Castle? Please!)
Sheridan’s directing style is similarly unimaginative: It tends toward overly edited dialogue scenes, unnecessary close-ups, and wide-angle compositions that are only used to serve his “America, the Beautiful” sensibilities. He’s no Chloé Zhao. The first scene with Hannah and her coworkers shooting the breeze at a picnic table should be an easy establishing exercise, but it’s practically impossible to follow, because Sheridan keeps switching perspectives and messing with blocking. Inside the car with Owen and Connor, Sheridan bounces between their faces every time one of them says something, refusing to let the audience absorb the scene in an unbroken way. And the devastating fire Jolie keeps flashing back to has no visual clarity. Much is made in the script of how the wind was blowing one way and then the other, but the scene is presented in such a disjointed way that most people will just remember the highly cliché moment where Jolie puts her hand over her mouth to signify her shock and devastation.
Aside from that eye-rollingly trite display of feminine concern (rivaled by the mind-boggling detail that Hannah, while living alone in a fire tower all summer, would choose to wear a lacy underwire bra), Jolie saves Those Who Wish Me Dead from total irredeemability. The script doesn’t do Hannah many favors, but Jolie’s self-assuredness, the ease with which she handles the physical demands of the role (swinging and rappelling, treating her own bruises and burns, handling a knife and axe), and her instantly believable chemistry with Little are all positives. Hannah’s character snaps into focus when she’s tasked with protecting Connor, and even against the increasingly ludicrous obstacles Sheridan places in their path — like a roaring forest fire that seems to purposefully and intentionally chase after them — Jolie sells the character’s single-mindedness.
But she almost has the film stolen out from her by Senghore, who plays the survival-school-running Allison. The most satisfying moments in Those Who Wish Me Dead belong to her character, who outsmarts Jack and Patrick, loads a rifle and rides a horse with practiced ease, and goes full lioness in protection of Ethan and their unborn child. It’s unsurprisingly reductive that the only way Sheridan can imagine strong women is by turning them into mothers. Those Who Wish Me Dead doesn’t need a sequel, but if he made one focusing on Jolie and Senghore’s characters, that wouldn’t be the worst thing. They’re the liveliest parts of what’s otherwise a shrug of a movie.
Those Who Wish Me Dead opens in theaters on May 14, and is streaming exclusively on HBO Max through June 13.