There are few things about a thriller that get me more excited than realizing the movie doesn’t rely on complicated plot MacGuffins, but on a fully realized setting and characters that either make their home or find themselves helpless there. From writer/director Taylor Sheridan, Those Who Wish Me Dead is one of those thrillers—and those two elements, setting and character, are two that Sheridan is most capable with. Based on Michael Koryta’s 2014 novel of the same name, the film’s rock-solid survival story is enhanced by its charming ensemble and striking, elegant environment.
Like most of Sheridan’s neo-Western work, the Montana-set film has an appreciation of the mythic American frontier. Horses and masculinity, lost innocence and found aptitude. This simplified adaptation (which Koryta co-wrote with Sheridan alongside Charles Leavitt) thrusts good and evil together with the same easy confidence of a corral shootout. A forensic accountant (Jake Weber, playing a pretty badass accountant but not a The Accountant-level badass) and his son, Connor (Finn Little) are on the run. Why? Well, the most we get is that Connor’s dad found out something pretty damn incriminating and those incriminated are none too happy. “What did you do?” Connor asks. All he really gets by way of answer is, “The right thing.” Quickly, that hard ol’ reality sets in that the right thing might not be the consequence-free thing it’s cracked up to be.
Those consequences take the form of two assassin baddies, played by slimelords Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen (both reveling in the assignment, sneers permanently plastered while they plan and execute their military-strict orders). They’re clinical without being boring, persistent without thwarting internal logic, extremely evil without being cartoonish. Yet they’re Fargo adjacent, like if some modern techno-military thriller’s enemies (or, let’s be honest, heroes) stumbled into a Coen script, fighting against it with vicious competence all the while. Sheridan doesn’t quite have the super-assassin/spy/military side of things down compared to the rest of the film, but it still mostly works thanks to the duo.
What Sheridan does have down pat is the rural blue-collar first responders Connor eventually finds himself with. Ethan (Jon Bernthal), a sheriff uncle, and his wife Allison (Medina Senghore) are the Plan A destination. Bernthal and Senghore are an exercise in chemistry: The couple are sexy, casual, loving and silly. Their acting is muscular and often unexpected, either in shows of angry grit or naked emotion—and you can always tell the other is on their mind. Senghore in particular does a great job enacting some of the script’s most subversive action. It’s a hell of a thing to pull off, but Sheridan’s got his cast exactly on his wavelength and almost every actor (perhaps excepting a truly jarring Tyler Perry cameo) matches the filmmaking’s storytelling style.
The hands-down best at this is Angelina Jolie. She plays Hannah, whom Connor stumbles into in the middle of the forest after Plan A is jettisoned for B. A smokejumper (basically like if a regular firefighter was in Point Break) with PTSD, Hannah was left guilt-ridden and shaken after a particularly awful wildfire. It also left her stuck in a dead-end assignment: All alone on watch duty, high above the forest in an isolated fire tower. Among the other visual feats pulled off by Ben Richardson (Sheridan’s cinematographer on Wind River and Yellowstone, who recently helped Mare of Easttown “[render] our small, collective suffering in stark shapes”) is the height, lonesomeness and awe of this skyward sentry, far above the verdant treetops.
Jolie’s a true show of physical prowess and magnetic swagger, flexing the muscles that have always contributed to her stardom. Few action scenes in modern cinema are as satisfying as watching Jolie sink a bag directly into a cornhole from a distance far enough to make your quiet country uncle spit some dip into his empty water bottle and nod approvingly. Thanks to the exceptional Little—who lands punchlines and tragedy in equal measure—she’s able to stand out from the standout cast even more, tapping into unspoken and complicated emotions that play across her face. Yes, it’s that “she saves the kid and the kid saves her” thing, but nowhere near as trite as it usually plays and thankfully without any weirdly regressive motherhood commentary. Instead, it allows a depressed, suicidal character (and one we so rarely see, with a Top Gun attitude and a ballbustingly confident veneer) a way back to the world.
I don’t mean to imply that Those Who Wish Me Dead is a feel-good story. As Hoult and Gillen close in, literal flames following in their wake as they light a blaze to distract from their executioner’s efforts, Sheridan fills the film with tension like smoke filling a burning house. Car crashes, gun fights—what other thrillers make almost dull in their over-the-top prevalence, Sheridan drills into your skull with unflinching, hard-as-nails realism. Guns attack your ears with every shot; cars are hulking, stupid machines that impact with the force of a wrecking ball. Done in the sound mixing and edit bay, there are no terrible “smash through the guardrails” explosions, just robust thrills. Jolie gets to swing an axe around, and that’s always a good thing in my book.
But that fire. It’s scary as hell and the signs of its approach dance around the screen like nature’s ticking time bomb. Smoke blots out the sky and the ashes from the roaring flame eventually cloud and color the drama without being distracting. The fire becomes raging, cataclysmic hate and greed—inescapable human sin come to claim the natural world and those stupid humans right along with it. Hellfire. Its presence makes the humans, even the two terrifying killers, seem like gnats. Swat them or get swatted by them, the apocalypse they ignited spreads ever onward. You can try to beat it back, and that’s damn noble, but just living to tell the tale after—that’s the real prize. In Sheridan’s universe, it’s the world that wishes us dead and it’s all we can do to find a reason to survive in each other.
These ensembles collide, ricochet and tangle as Those Who Wish Me Dead builds to its brutal if expected finale, and it’s near impossible to look away. It’s the dense woodland, the savvy character work, the moral core that’s both optimistic and pessimistic enough to sustain its modern-day white and black hats. It pulls off the kind of complexity and aesthetic cohesion that Without Remorse and Sicario: Day of the Soldado (Sheridan’s latest screenplay works) so sorely lack. Gripping and intelligent, Those Who Wish Me Dead is revitalizing.
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Writers: Michael Koryta, Charles Leavitt, Taylor Sheridan
Stars: Angelina Jolie, Nicholas Hoult, Finn Little, Aidan Gillen, Medina Senghore, Tyler Perry, Jake Weber, Jon Bernthal
Release Date: May 14, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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