Those Who Wish Me Dead is the new feature from Taylor Sheridan, who knocked it out of the park with his screenplays for Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River (the latter of which he also directed.) It stars Jon Bernthal, Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult and a little lady (you probably haven’t heard of her) called Angelina Jolie. From the trailer I was expecting a Hollywood rendition of Firewatch whose story would be overshadowed by its inclusion of a big movie star, and I pretty much nailed it.
Hannah Faber (Ange) is a firefighter with regrets – flashbacks to a particularly nasty blaze reveal that three boys perished before her, and her guilt over her self-described ‘cowardice’ that day still haunts her. She is the leader of a group of smokejumpers and has just been stationed in a watchtower overlooking the Montana wilderness. Her ex-boyfriend and now-sheriff Ethan Sawyer (Jon Bernthal) gets caught up in the plot when his assistance is requested in housing a teen, as his pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore) runs a survival school that the boy previously attended. Without spoiling anything Allison kind of ends up being the MVP of the whole thing, and I think that’s a nice win for the ladies.
Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult are brothers and hitmen, hired by Tyler Perry (who is literally in the film for one minute) to silence forensic accountant Mr Casserly (played by Mr Allison Dubois aka Jake Weber) who ‘knows something’. I missed what that ‘something’ was because my cat was acting a damn fool and sticking his paws in the toaster, but the gist I got was that it involved the police being shady and cooking some numbers. Once the brothers succeed at expiring Mr Casserly (a rather crunchy scene involving a brutal car flipping) they go after his son Connor (Aussie boy Finn Little.) Connor runs into Hannah, ends up in her custody, and they have a flamin’ good time for the rest of the film (sorry.)
What I like about Hannah (and Ange in the role) is that she’s not the Ange we’re used to seeing. During one scene where she chases Connor through the woods, I couldn’t help but make the rude assumption that she was adopting another child. But Hannah is not great with kids – she tells inappropriate stories, doesn’t know how to hug, and seems more like your beloved black sheep uncle than the woman we’ve all grown to see as the Mother of the world. I think this is a good thing – it makes her interactions with Connor more equal, and Finn Little really holds his own against her.
Ange looks fantastic – she has the dewy skin of someone who can afford the 250ml tub of La Mer and walks with the weightlessness of having finally escaped the house after a year of Covid confinement alongside six children. Her chemistry with Finn Little is the main strength of the film and I can’t imagine the elation this kid would’ve had, going to work with Lara Croft every day.
Other high points of the film include the fire itself (when real fire is used) – the ash floating through the air and the golden light that the massive fire casts on the characters and the trees is pretty breathtaking. Notes of Heat towards the end during a light-dependant game of hide-and-seek between Ange and the lesser hitman brother provide the most aesthetically lovely sequence of the film.
Now for some petty gripes.
The effects aren’t really up to par for a big-ish film coming out in 2021. There is a short comic relief scene early on where Ange, proving that she can kick it with the boys, parachutes off a moving truck. The CGI person she is replaced with looks quite cheap and perhaps the budget didn’t spring for it, but Zoe Bell totally could’ve done that. The watchtower looks less than realistic and it only makes the Firewatch comparisons that much more obvious considering the illustrative style of that game. It’s also easy to tell between real fire and CGI fire at times, beautiful though it is.
Some of the characters are a bit one dimensional and caricatured – the brothers Blackwell especially. Aidan Gillen’s catchphrase as the elder Blackwell is “I hate this fucking place” but it’s never really explained why, and it seems like the only attempt made to attribute some sort of emotion to him. I know it makes sense in theory to cast Littlefinger as another cold bastard, but some laurels should not be rested upon.
There were several funny moments, like Gillen pretending to change a tyre and then just giving up and shooting an unlucky passerby in the face, and I probably could’ve done with more of that. I don’t know if it’s wish fulfillment, but my brain keeps retroactively placing Ben Mendelsohn in his role instead, so I’m not sure what that says about the power of Gillen’s performance.
Nicholas Hoult is fine as the less scary Blackwell brother but the film makes the mistake of expiring the alpha brother too early. Once Gillen is gone, there really is no reason to believe that our heroes won’t make it out alive against Tony from Skins. Considering Hoult did some impressive (and threatening) work in The Great, I think he’s underused here.
The thing I can’t get past that makes this film just ‘fine’ for me is the unshakeable Hollywoodness that exists beneath the surface. Sheridan’s previous films have also been mainstream and used well-known actors but they all have a sense of daring that Those Who Wish Me Dead lacks. It may be a case of ‘too many cooks’ (three people wrote the screenplay, one of whom wrote the book on which the film is based) or the massive distraction of having Angelina Jolie in your movie, but I didn’t feel the grit that I’ve become accustomed to.
They’ve touted this as a neo-Western, and while it may have been true of Hell or High Water and Wind River, there’s an odd absence of vastness for a film set in the wilderness. The chase feels quite stationary, and I just wanted to explore more of the map.
I give Those Who Wish Me Dead 6/10. Despite its flaws, it’s great having Angie back on the big screen and encouraging to see a young Australian up there with her.