Taylor Sheridan’s Those Who Wish Me Dead often doesn’t make sense, but the actors and set pieces make up for all of its faults, forming into an enjoyable thrill ride.
This review of Those Who Wish Me Dead does not contain spoilers — the Taylor Sheridan film was released on HBO Max and cinemas on May 14, 2021.
Taylor Sheridan’s Those Who Wish Me Dead, an HBO Max/Warner Bros release, keeps getting called a “throwback” to the 90s. A throwback Western, set against the forests of Montana, Sheridan’s thriller feels like the type of movie your dad takes you to when you’re 12 years old. He saw the trailer during another action film and thought it looked like a perfect movie. My grandfather would think this is the best movie since Die Hard.
Angelina Jolie, a smokejumper named Hannah, must take care of a young boy who witnessed his father’s death, escaping (government-hired?) assassins and the blazing fire that they started. Pursuing Jolie is the team of Nicholas Hoult and Aiden Gillen as Patrick and Jack, a father-son team of assassins hired by Tyler Perry, a one-scene performance of cool, intrigue, and hamminess. Jon Bernthal joins the chaos as a local sheriff, expectant father, and ex-boyfriend to Hannah. Together, the cast seems to be having a blast, and more than anything, that’s what the film provides, a blast of energy, electricity, and old-fashioned, just-violent-enough fun.
Sheridan has a reputation for writing such movies, with Hell or High Water being a clear cut above the rest, playing off relationships and minimal, beautiful landscapes to great effect. Those Who Wish Me Dead doesn’t have the same joy as some of his past work, but it reels you in, starts fast, and trades expository dialogue for scenes of Jolie pulling a parachute from the back of a speeding truck. In this case, it’s an apt tradeoff.
Everyone commits to the wild nature of the story, despite a diminishing believability. The film never ceases to lose your attention because, at all times, there’s an actor on-screen that has the ability to hold that attention. From Gillen and Hoult, who steal the film in many ways, to Jolie and Bernthal, Those Who Wish Me Dead contains a mix of star power, name recognition, and character actors that want to have a good time in the wilderness.
Sheridan never reveals what sets off this chain of events, never giving us the information that the government feels compelled to protect, only telling us that a forensics accountant found out something that he shouldn’t have, leading to the death of himself, the local defense attorney, and hundreds, if not thousands, of acres of land. But still, the film hinges on something as exciting as Tom Cruise faxing documents during The Firm, regardless of the elements, from the fire to the assassins, surrounding this implicating piece of evidence.
Without featuring the writing that makes earlier Sheridan projects so compelling, this Western relies on its actors to give exaggerated performances, outside of the tiniest bit of nuance with Jolie’s portrayal of Hannah. Gillen and Hoult exist as living examples of evil. Jolie and Bernthal fit into classic hero archetypes. And the rest of the characters fill in the gaps, pushing the narrative forward into more confusing territory. As long as you don’t think about the details of what’s happening, the film excels on sheer beauty and acting strength alone.
Sheridan doesn’t reach for existential meaning with Those Who Wish Me Dead. That’s not the point. Other than the dread you feel while seeing a burning forest fire, feelings beyond general action-adventure excitement and anxiety don’t bubble to the surface. Moments of guilt and internal strife open and close before you can even think about your own relation to these characters. They almost exist in a world outside of your view. You won’t be placing yourself into Jolie’s shoes unless you happen to be one of the few smokejumpers flipping on Sheridan’s latest. It’s not a film designed to be thought about for days and weeks on end. It’s not scary enough to invade your dreams, turning them into nightmares. Designed as a retreat with Jolie in a forest, Sheridan’s film feels like a safe bet for moviegoers, a film designed to pump adrenaline into your body and give you a happy-enough ending. The good guys and gals always win in films like Those Who Wish Me Dead.