Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And in his new actioner Those Who Wish Me Dead, director Taylor Sheridan definitely brings the heat.
Those Who Wish Me Dead follows Hannah (Angelina Jolie), a smoke jumper who is struggling with the events of a rescue gone wrong. Now choosing to work in isolation in the watchtower, Hannah stands atop the Montana wilderness, looking for signs of danger. However, this life of seclusion is upended when she meets Connor (Finn Little), a terrified and bloodied boy who needs to make his way back to civilization. As she attempts to bring him to safety, Hannah soon discovers that not only must she dodge an oncoming fiery blaze but also avoid the sights of two relentless killers who are consumed with killing young Connor as well.
Directed by Taylor Sheridan, Those Who Wish Me Dead is a tightly executed thriller that burns with blazing ferocity throughout. Known for such well-regarded films as Sicario and Wind River, Sheridan’s work rarely fails to disappoint, especially when it comes to building a world of intensity. At only 100 minutes, he makes great use of his runtime with very little extra padding. From the film’s opening sequence, Sheridan shows that he knows what he wants to accomplish and goes after it with force. Part Backdraft and part No Country for Old Men, the film has some truly harrowing set-pieces that are positively gripping. (Two scenes involving both a raid on the sheriff’s home and Jolie’s run through a storm-riddled field are particularly worth noting.)
While the script is solid, what gives life to the film is its cast. While Dead features strong work from Jon Bernthal, Aiden Gillan and Nicholas Hoult, it’s the female cast members whose performances are straight fire. With the bulk of her work in the last decade relegated to family fare, Jolie’s dramatic work has been much more limited. However, in the role of Hannah, Jolie has the opportunity to dig into a unique blend of both compassionate caregiver and brooding badass. (Seriously, when was the last time we got to see her character jump from a moving vehicle… for fun?) With both courage and empathy, Jolie consistently reminds the viewer what makes her so special as an actress and she is a joy to watch onscreen. At the same time, the best surprise may come in the form of relative newcomer Medina Senghore who is on absolutely incredible. As mother-to-be Allison, Senghore showcases a protective strength and focus that fuels the film, making her one of its most notable talents.
Interestingly, Sheridan opts to play much of the film’s exposition close to his vest. While this will likely irk some viewers, it is also one of the film’s most interesting traits. By keeping its secret under wraps, Sheridan also keeps the narrative firmly fixated on the journey of his characters. This is not a film dedicated to bringing down a vast conspiracy (although that certainly exists). Instead, Sheridan is more focused on the characters and their journeys at this one moment of their lives, especially that of Hannah.
With this in mind, it’s worth noting that Sheridan’s use of fire in this film feels particularly unique. Rather than simply treat it as an oncoming threat, Sheridan uses it to represent the pain that we fear most. Haunted by a particularly traumatic moment of her past, Hannah has chosen to work in solitude in the watchtower. For her, the fire represents her own perceived failures. (“Instead of fighting [the fire], we found ourselves running from it. And that’s not where you want to be,” she explains.) In other words, as the oncoming blaze ravages the forest, Hannah not only attempts to outrun the flames but also her inability to deal with her pain.
As a result, she has opted to take on the role of warning people of danger rather than enter into it herself.
All that changes when she meets Connor. Though she fears the flames, she also recognizes that sometimes you need to face them head-on. Without giving away any spoilers, Sheridan uses Hannah’s decision to endure the fire as an opportunity for her to potentially begin to move forward. Regardless of what she’s been through, this becomes a time where she can stand and fight.
Whereas fire decimates, so too can it make something new.
Well-written and anchored by fierce performances, Those That Wish Me Dead is a thrilling ride from start to finish. With each film, Sheridan continues to develop his skills as a story-teller and he attacks this story with focus and heat. At the same time, he also shows that the fire we fear may also be the very thing that we must face in order to heal.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is available in theatres and on HBO Max on Friday, May 14th, 2021.