Taylor Sheridan established his brand as a screenwriter of rural crime fiction with a series of tense thrillers such as “Sicario,” Oscar-nominated “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River,” which he also directed. These hard-boiled stories capture morality struggles among amoral circumstances, combined with the righteous violence and the rough terrain of classic westerns. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” features similar themes through a set of interweaving plot stands that struggle for balance in this muddled, yet sometimes tense thriller.
A Fort Lauderdale tax man named Owen (Jake Weber) finds concerning discrepancies within his clients’ filings that put the life of him and his teenage son Connor (Finn Little) in danger. Knowing that bad men who do bad things are now after them, Owen travels to Montana where his law enforcement brother-in-law Ethan (Jon Bernthal) can protect him until he can take his story to the media. The boy is suddenly forced to finish the trek alone when their location is discovered by the assassins. With only the help of a local fire marshal named Hannah (Angelina Jolie), he must survive the harsh Montana landscape long enough to break the corruption story that will ensure his safety.
Of Sheridan’s later work, this film is a little more sprawling and ambitious. The action splits between Jolie and Little wandering the woods, the assassins trying to find them, and Bernthal’s and his character’s wife Allison (Medina Senghore) also in pursuit. Within these separate plot threads, characters are given motivating backstories. While I commend the attention paid to emotional storytelling and giving characters engaging pathos, occasionally the intensity of the manhunt is dialed down to wallow with the characters as they recount their personal struggles, and the tension of action is sometimes compromised.
We learn early on that Jolie’s character suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from a past rescue gone wrong. This is set up to establish an arc when she is positioned to protect the young Connor. I’m sure this aspect was the hook that attracted Jolie to the role and I’m certain Sheridan himself would call this arc the beating heart of the film. Unfortunately, it’s predictable, clichéd and ultimately unnecessary. Why can’t Hannah just be a capable survivalist who helps the kid because that’s her job and she happens to be good at it? What’s written to be Hannah’s internal development comes off as serendipitous to be the point of silliness.
The assassins played by Nicholas Hoult and Aiden Gillan create a compelling villainous duo; they’re cold-blooded and methodical, but their prowess as manhunters hampers realistically when out of their element. Likewise, Bernthal as the rural officer and Senghore as his pregnant (but resilient) wife shine. Other performances, such as Weber as the concerned white-collar father, and sometimes even Jolie herself, resonate less, often dry or too literal in their interpretation.
The first third of “Those Who Wish Me Dead” takes little time to rev things up, but once the characters establish themselves and the action sets into place, there’s plenty to keep you invested. The mountain landscape makes for creative chase sequences and shrouds locations from narrative certainty. Occasionally I’m left wanting more from this pot-boiler and consider the movie a lesser work from this exciting screenwriter, but the genre foundation is sturdy and the characters make interesting choices that result in satisfying action conceits.
Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He is currently working as a media journalist in Los Angeles, California.