Even the most complicated action movies tend to have a singular focus. If you’re making a crime thriller, the action is about the crime. If you’re making a movie about firefighters, the action is about the danger of the fire. The new film Those Who Wish Me Dead divides its focus, trying to fit a bit about both of those worlds into its running time, and barely succeeding at making a coherent whole.
Angelina Jolie stars as Hannah, a wildland firefighter who’s been consigned to a fire tower watchpoint as she recovers from a traumatic recent experience. She and her group of firefighters are a close-knit bunch who are also tight with the local rural community, including Ethan (Jon Bernthal), a sheriff’s deputy who runs a wilderness survival school with his wife Allison (Medina Senghore).
Their isolated world soon collides with the criminal underground when Owen (Jake Weber) and his son Connor (Finn Little) come to town, hoping to find refuge with Ethan, Owen’s brother-in-law. They’re on the run from Jack (Aiden Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult), two killers who are trying to prevent Owen from releasing damaging information about the people for whom they work.
Directed by Taylor Sheridan and written by Sheridan, Michael Koryta (who wrote the book on which the film is based), and Charles Leavitt, the film is a mixed bag of storytelling. Where the filmmakers succeed the most is establishing the bonds of the various relationships in the film.
In relatively short periods of time, the connection between Owen & Connor and Ethan & Allison become meaningful parts of the story. Hannah is shown to be an extremely empathetic character, something that helps her greatly as the film progresses. Heck, even the killer duo of Jack and Patrick have an unspoken link that is unusual in a world where people tend to only look out for themselves.
But the disparate parts of the story ultimately become a bit much for the film to handle. The crime part of the story never really makes sense, as they never say exactly what information Owen has or who employs Jack and Patrick. There’s a lot of innuendo and intrigue, including a random meeting with Arthur (Tyler Perry) that hints at a larger story that got edited out of the movie if only because having Perry show up for one scene doesn’t compute.
However, you don’t have to understand the story to get into the suspense of the third act of the film, which includes not just the killers menacing everybody in sight, but also a raging forest fire. Sheridan and his team stage almost all of these scenes well, even if the computer-generated fire fails to inspire the awe that it should.
The acting in the film is uniformly good, probably too good for the type of film it is. Jolie, despite a few over-the-top moments, remains a commanding screen presence. Bernthal and especially Senghore do a lot with relatively small roles. Little is likely to get a lot more work thanks to his nuanced performance. Gillen and Hoult are way overqualified for their respective roles, but the fact that they are elevates their characters to more than they might have been.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is not a film that will stand the test of time, but it’s a solidly entertaining action film with a number of compelling performances, much more than can be said about other recent films.
Those Who Wish Me Dead opens in theaters and on HBO Max on May 14.