Those Who Wish Me Dead was on my must-see list because it is Taylor Sheridan's return to feature-length directing after Wind River back in 2017; a movie I loved. That's not to say he hasn't been busy, being the creator, executive producer, writer, and director of the hit show Yellowstone. As much as I enjoy that show, I was looking forward to his return to movies, as I prefer them over TV series and I have loved the style and tone of nearly everything he has written. This is only his sixth feature-length writing credit, but check out his previous filmography; Sicario (2015), Hell or High Water (2016), Wind River (2017), Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018), Tom Clancy's Without Remorse (2021). Even the worst of those are solid films, and every single one of them is immensely watchable. In my opinion, Sheridan hasn't written a bad movie yet, and that streak continues with this one.
Angelina Jolie stars as Hannah, a wilderness firefighter relegated to watchtower duty while she struggles with PTSD from the last fire her team fought. She comes across Connor (Finn Little), a teenaged murder witness on the run from a duo of assassins (Aiden Gillan and Nicholas Hoult). Hannah must protect the boy from the killers, with a little help from a deputy (Jon Bernthal) and his wife (Medina Senghore), while dealing with a massive forest fire heading their way.
If that description seems a little simple, that's because the whole movie is that way, and I mean that in a good way. This is a much more straightforward movie than Sheridan's other works. Typically, Sheridan works in the grey areas, with the line between good and bad being a bit blurred. In this, things are very clear; The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. In that way, this feels like a thriller we might have gotten in the '90s.
That feeling is made stronger by the simplicity of the action, which like the action in Sheridan's other films, strives for a more grounded, realistic tone than many modern action movies. Sure, a lot of the forest fire is rendered using CGI, but for the most part, it's just actors, stunt performers, and loads of blanks fired. I, for one, appreciated the old-school bare-bones approach to the action. There's also a good mixture of elements of human vs nature with human vs human, which prevents the action from becoming repetitive.
If a movie has such a simple story and approach to its storytelling, it must have interesting characters to keep our attention. In my opinion, that has always been one of Sheridan's strongest facets of his writing. He has a way of making his characters feel like real people, developing them through their dialogue, which is rarely showy or expository, and through their actions. The characters in this are no exception. They are all well thought out and well-written characters that have no problem holding our interest.
I also love the writing when it comes to the characters' decisions. Every single character makes smart, logical decisions in an attempt to gain the upper hand. If a character gets hurt or killed, it isn't because of a stupid decision made entirely to force the narrative to go a certain way, as we see in a lot of movies today. Instead, their decisions make complete sense. Unfortunately for them, the other side is also smart so things don't go according to plan. That's exactly how Sheridan cranks up the tension. We're never sure how the events are going to play out. The protagonists get put into situations that seem utterly helpless, and we don't see any way they can get out of it. The assassins are too competent and too smart to be fooled. On the other hand, the group of people protecting the boy are smart, tough, and strong, so they aren't going to go down without a fight. Watching this deadly game of cat and mouse play out is exhilarating and makes the relatively short runtime fly by.
Not only are the characters well written, they are also all incredibly acted. Hoult (X-Men: First Class, Mad Max: Fury Road) and Gillan (Game of Thrones, Peaky Blinders) are fantastic and work together well as the assassins; Bernthal does a fine job as Hannah's deputy friend, but this is Angelina's movie and she doesn't disappoint. Once known for her action movie prowess, she's been out of the game for a bit, as this is her first action-oriented role in over a decade. There must not have been much rust for her to shake off because it feels like she never went away from the genre. She absolutely owns the physicality of the role, making it seem easy. Aside from the physical aspect of the performance, I think this is her best role in a long while, probably since Changeling in 2008. She plays a rough-edged, tough-as-hell firefighter with plenty of personal issues, and she portrays that perfectly. Once she is burdened with protecting the child, she really starts to shine. Jolie manages to convey vulnerability and compassion that never feels like it betrays her character's tough nature. It's a difficult balance to pull off, but Jolie does so impressively.
Medina Senghore is also fantastic as Allison, the pregnant wife of Jon Bernthal's character, Ethan. She has great chemistry with Bernthal, which leads to some of the better dramatic moments of the film. Unfortunately for her, she gets wrapped up in the events simply for being a deputy's wife, but it's a decision the assassins grow to regret. She runs a wilderness survival camp with her husband, so she isn't about to let herself become a damsel in distress. She fights, claws, and shoots her way through the movie, becoming this year's most badass character that I definitely did not see coming, and I loved every bit of it!
Finn Little also deserves some recognition for his performance as Connor, the young kid at the center of the story. He is tasked with carrying the bulk of the dramatic moments, so a bad performance would have derailed the entire film. Luckily, he works well with Jolie and he gives a very natural performance that makes those dramatic scenes very effective.
I wholeheartedly recommend Those Who Wish Me Dead, simply because there are so many things it does right. Overall, it doesn't break any new ground and it might feel a bit familiar, but there's something to be said about a movie that just does everything right. In the end, great writing, directing, acting, and action easily overcome that feeling of familiarity. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for in fun, effective, tense thrills and a quick pace.