A brilliantly simple cat and mouse thriller that boasts a likeable cast and a series of suspensful sequences. See it on the big screen.
Taylor Sheridan loves the American frontier. From the desert expanses that form the setting for Sicario and Hell or Highwater to the bleak snowy reservations in Wind River, Sheridan has single-handedly kept the neo-western sub-genre alive. His latest, Those Who Wish Me Dead, moves the frontier to the enormous forests of Montana where hitmen, sheriffs and a smokejumper converge in pursuit of a young boy whilst a wildfire threatens to consume them all.
It feels like an eternity since seeing Angelina Jolie on the big screen (and an eternity since seeing the big screen). Jolie plays titular role Hannah, a deeply traumatised smokejumper who uses the façade of a fiery extrovert, and brings some star wattage to the film as she stumbles across a lone child in the wild. Jolie portrayal is extremely likeable throughout thanks to a surprisingly witty screenplay that sees Sheridan scribe with two others for a change (one of whom, Michael Koryta, wrote the book it was adapted from of the same name). Hannah’s humour is as dry as the forest around her, trading F-bombs with Finn Little’s MacGuffin child, Connor. That is not to say the film is a comedy; a darkness still exists here, but it is far from the oppressive solemnity of Wind River or the murky ambiguity of Sicario.
Between Hannah and the hitmen are Jon Bernthal’s sheriff and his pregnant wife, played by Medina Senghore. Sheridan stages the usual bursts of ultraviolence with tense stand-offs and a strong sense of cathartic justice that defines his other works, as well as impending doom. His camera is smooth and clean, utilising sweeping shots of the green landscape with dreading music to install a mounting tension as flames and bullets materialise into the ‘rock and a hard place’ for Hannah and Connor.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is perilously close to being a B-movie. Even after a splattering of murders forces Connor into the dense forests of Montana, the audience is still none the wiser as to what the unearthed conspiracy at the heart of the narrative actually is. A brief appearance from Tyler Perry is the only moment the film hints at external powers, but for the most part the ‘why’ is largely irrelevant and replaced with the ‘how’ of survival.
The cast are all great; cutting between them never loses momentum as the airtight script ensures every scene provides character or threat. If there is a standout its Bernthal (who is quietly becoming one of the finest character actors of his generation) and Senghore, who gets an especially clammy reloading scene. Clocking in at a lean 100 minutes, the film’s thrills are rapidly paced. The film does feel conventional and less playful with structure and narrative than Sheridan’s other scripts; comparisons to mid-budget thrillers from the 1990s are earned but this is not necessarily a criticism. In a current film landscape where subversive, genre-bending pictures are becoming more popular, it is ironically refreshing to have a traditionally made, effective slab of entertainment.