You might not necessarily be aware of who Taylor Sheridan – the co-writer/director of Those Who Wish Me Dead – is as a filmmaker but it’s likely you’ve seen some of his work. Over the past few years he’s been etching out a career rooted in morally grey thrillers. Arguably the kind of thrillers, in the tsunami of superhero films, that don’t get made anymore.
From his debut writing feature, the blistering Sicario, through to the likes of Hell & Highwater and Wind River, Sheridan’s work is compelling and original. His characters are frequently multi-motivated, driven by moral compasses that skew fractionally off from where classic Hollywood films dictate they should.
His latest film, based on the book by Michael Koryta, certainly aims to tread similar themes to Sheridan’s previous works.
Having survived a brutal forest fire that saw the deaths of innocent teenagers, smoke-jumper Hannah (Angelina Jolie) finds herself assigned to a fire-watch tower in the middle of the woods. When young teenager Connor (Finn Little) witnesses his father’s murder at the hands of two assassins (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) he stumbles into Hannah’s territory and the two must fight their way to safety as both killers and a raging fire close in.
In many ways Those Who Wish Me Dead is very much a typical Sheridan film. From its ruthless killers to its stunning vistas brimming with danger he transports us to the world completely. By the third act, when the fire is burning bright and the horizon an orange haze of terror, there is no question the tension is quite something to behold.
Sheridan’s characters are often a little bit broken and a little bit unnerving to watch. Hannah’s trauma is painted a little too broadly but Connor’s is handled in an often delicate and all the more powerful manner. A subplot featuring Jon Bernthal looking to protect his heavily pregnant wife Medina Senghore brings a sense of duty and survivalism that fleshes out the main story incredibly well while refusing to conform to genre expectations.
Where it does slightly falter, and it is unlike Sheridan, is in how it becomes slightly formulaic. With so many dark and shady characters on offer you wonder who Connor really can trust only for it to leave little impact come the conclusion. The fire fizzles out rather than sears itself into the memory. However, there is enough heart, redemption and violence on offer to keep you firmly hooked.
Young Finn Little turns in a potentially star-making performance, his Connor being stoically fragile. Hoult and Gillen are both brilliant as the almost blase about death killers, at times Hoult alludes to perhaps questioning his motives often to be revealed to be the most brutal of the pair. Bernthal, usually most at home as the villain, turns in a heartwarming performance of fierce protector. But the film focuses primarily on the sheer star-wattage power of Jolie. Once you get past the concept of a goddess like Jolie being a lonely smoke-jumper she carries the film as you would expect; with grace, power and that ability of her’s to be utterly broken inside while giving a chiseled from granite exterior.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is a solid thriller aided by some great visuals and a cast all clearly revelling in the characters they are inhabiting.