A Delayed Burn — Those Who Wish Me Dead
Tyler Sheridan has carved himself quite a nice little niche in the neo-Western movement. From his days acting on Sons of Anarchy, to his lauded scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water, he’s more than established himself as having a uniquely fun understanding of both sides of the law, and how to depict it as a modern version of the old frontier. His latest is Those Who Wish Me Dead, available in theatres and on HBO Max. There are definitely some things worth recommending here, particularly the camera work and the cast, but it should be noted that the script is lacking, and given the film’s backdrop, it takes a frustratingly long time to get the action moving.
For the first 40 of the movie’s 100-minute runtime, we’re witness to two separate stories with only the thinnest of connective tissue. In the first, Angelina Jolie plays Hannah Faber, a “smokejumper,” (literally a firefighter who parachutes into wildfires) who has been reassigned to a lookout tower in Montana after a miscalculation in a previous blaze cost the lives of one of her colleagues and three campers.
This is some ripe fruit for story, because there are a number of ways it can go. She has nightmares about the last deadly fire. We see some really cool sequences of the actual parachuting and firefighting. We even get the standard-issue ball-busting and dick-swinging from her way-too-macho coworkers. It feels like the beginning of a Michael Bay movie, and for once, that’s not a bad thing. Given the man’s predilection for pyrotechnics, he would actually be an ideal choice for an action movie about smokejumpers, as the explosions and fires are already built in to the story. I’m not saying it would be great, but it could certainly pass for entertaining, and while I can’t stand his work in general, it’s definitely up Bay’s alley.
You could also go for a more morose angle, of which Sheridan only slightly scratches the surface. Hannah is clearly traumatized by what happened, but she also feels slighted by her new duties. There’s room to explore that, and see if she can cope with her updated lot in life while still finding a way to help and perhaps redeem herself. She could also simply learn to forgive herself for what happened, as it’s made clear that no one finds her at fault.
Instead, Sheridan gives us a few scenes of shit talk, a very ill-advised stunt where Hannah deploys her parachute while hanging on to the back of a pickup truck, and a few rounds of “This is fucking bullshit!” complaints about being taken out of the active field. This is spearheaded by a sheriff’s deputy named Ethan, played by Jon Bernthal. Oh, I should mention, he’s married now (Medina Senghore turns in an underrated bit of badassery as his pregnant wife), but they used to date, so, tension, I guess.
Ethan is the brother of Owen, a forensic accountant played by Jake Weber, who lives in Fort Lauderdale. One day, he sees a news report that the local district attorney was killed in a house explosion. As he’s been working on some evidence to take down a major crime boss (Tyler Perry in an utterly pointless cameo), Owen knows he’s the next target, so he takes his son Connor (Finn Little), and flees for Montana, hoping Ethan can protect him. They are pursued and attacked by contract killers Patrick and Jack, played by Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen, respectively, though Gillen looks more like Peter Riegert in The Mask than Littlefinger at this point, though that’s probably for the best.
That’s it. That’s what somehow connects Hannah to Connor when life or death circumstances bring them together. Escaping the hitmen in the Montana woods, Connor comes into contact with Hannah, and they try to make their way to the nearest town to inform the press about Owen’s evidence.
This is all very flimsy, not to mention boring as hell. The odds of Owen’s brother being the ex-boyfriend of Hannah AND the perfect person to help out in his situation are astronomical. The odds of Patrick and Jack figuring out where Owen and Connor are going and beating them there, but confronting them only about five miles from the point of safety are even more so. Connor then stumbling across Hannah completely independent of Ethan but knowing he’s basically right around the corner anyway? We’re just creating entirely new universes of convenience now.
But, having said all that, once we get past those first 40 minutes and combine the two stories into one coherent narrative, things really pick up and we have some decent action and thrills. There’s this weirdly affecting rapport Jack shares with Patrick, both as brothers and as murderers. It’s actually kind of heartwarming to see them work so well together to take out their targets but also show legitimate concern for one another. Jack is also a very clever and resourceful killer, taking it upon himself to start a wildfire using road flares in order to cover their tracks and impede rescue efforts once they determine that Connor is somewhere in the woods. That fire provides not only an obstacle for Connor and Hannah, but some fairly cool cinematography and visual effects as it becomes a creeping secondary antagonist.
It also doesn’t hurt that, with the film’s R-rating, Sheridan doesn’t skimp on the violence. If this were a PG-13 movie, most of the kills would be just a sound effect, a light flash from a gun, and a body falling. Not here, folks. I won’t spoil anything, but some of the hits are more crass and gruesome than actual horror movies, and the film is only the better for it. The drama and pathos are drawn from the realism of the situation, both the threat from the flames and the graphic nature of the violence. There’s no, “Oh, maybe he’ll be okay” moments when someone gets shot here. They dead. They real dead. And that gives us actual stakes.
This all leads to a climax that, while convoluted, certainly kept my attention. There aren’t any real surprises with the ending; the story is too straightforward in the back half to allow for any. But even knowing how it all will turn out, the execution is still very well done. I didn’t buy the initial reticence that Connor and Hannah had towards each other. It honestly seemed tacked on to pad the runtime when logic would dictate he’d rush to whoever could possibly help him rather than try to crack wise. But that doesn’t mean that Jolie and Little don’t give good performances. I believe the line deliveries and some of the actions they take, even if the script itself leaves me wanting. It’s not brilliant by any means, but it works as far as it needs to.
I honestly didn’t know what to think when I went into this movie. The trailer was sort of meh, and very nearly made the May edition of TFINYW. For close to half the film, I counted myself among the titular group of “Those,” both in regards to Angelina Jolie and the kid. But once Tyler Sheridan was done setting his table and actually lit the fire on this one (figuratively and literally), I found it decently entertaining. It won’t be remembered all that fondly in the months to come, though the visual effects might be worth a look come Awards Season. But it’s pretty clear the movie isn’t aspiring to anything so lofty. And even within its narrow confines, there are still hints of Sheridan’s new version of the Old West visible in the margins.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you ever seen a wildfire up close? What celebrity would you like to see get struck by lightning? Let me know!