One hallmark of writer-director Taylor Sheridan’s style is to showcase wide open vistas. Sicario focused on the ungovernable Mexican-Texas border. Hell Or High Water drilled down and emphasized desolate, brush-filled Texas towns. His TV series’ Yellowstone details the collision between massive Montana ranches and native Indian reservations. Now, Those Who Wish Me Dead uses the dense, mountainous, wooded lands as a stand-in for Montana. “I really like these big, wide open spaces,” says young main character Connor Casserly (Finn Little) at one point. It’s hard not to.
His villains are painted with sharp, big, bold strokes too. They tend to know their way around high powered guns, don’t mess around and aren’t prone to making mistakes or taking prisoners. Following their explosive first appearance in the new film — during which they blow a DA’s house to smithereens in Jacksonville, Florida, it’s clear that what father and son duo Jack and Patrick Blackwell (Aiden Gillen and Nicolas Hoult) want — they usually get.
What’s less certain is why Connor’s father, portrayed with appropriate fear by Jake Weber, is suddenly hellbent on taking his 12-year-old son and getting the heck out of town after he sees a news report about the murder. Nor is one quite sure what intercut scenes of smokejumper Hannah Faber’s (Angelina Jolie) tragic flashbacks have to do with it. When she’s not engaging in raunchy banter with her colleagues, there are several scenes of her trying to overcome her own fears in a rickety fire tower.
But the lives of young Connor and Hannah will inevitably collide, and here we come to another of Sheridan’s assured strengths: the ability to quickly establish tight emotional bonds during a time of crisis. Ever so quickly, the scenes between the shaken but resourceful Connor and the savvy Faber form the backbone of this survivalist film. For suddenly, a massive forest fire is raging and assassins are on their tail. In other hands, this might come off as a daft b-grade premise. Under Sheridan’s guidance, what ensues is vein-chilling, riveting cinema.
Though endlessly watchable, what does keep this tight 100-minute film from aspiring to more are some of the subplots shoehorned into the mix, For instance, there’s an appearance by local sheriff Ethan Sawyer (John Bernthal) and his pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghorne). Hannah’s fire tragedy is also more emoted than truly felt. And, it’s never truly ascertained as to why Connor needs to ultimately tell his father’s story to the world, when he doesn’t even comprehend it himself.
Despite these shortcomings, Jolie needs more of these concerned action roles where she looks and sounds great onscreen. She’s certainly in her element here. And Sheridan is once again proving he’s a director to watch. It’s not at the overall level of Sicario, but Those Who Wish Me Dead has enough natural and suspenseful action sequences to make a matinee cinema visit worth it.