I wouldn’t really consider myself a big fan of writer/director Taylor Sheridan as much as a big fan of Hell or High Water, the four-time Oscar nominated film for which he wrote the screenplay (which garnered him one of the four nominations). Other than that film, Sheridan, who wrote and directed Those Who Wish Me Dead, the new Angelina Jolie vehicle, has had some whiffs for me. I watched Wind River back when it came out because of some good word of mouth and it was severely underwhelming (I’m in the minority on this opinion). And Sicario is my least favorite Denis Villeneuve film out of the what I’ve seen (all of his English films. And this is also a minority opinion).
Out of those three films, I think what makes Hell or High Water so special is that it is an exciting, intriguing, and even funny movie experience all while providing true and genuine meaning through each of the four main characters. It’s the perfect blend of everything that I think makes a movie great, and I was absolutely wowed the first time I saw it. So keeping in mind how much I adore that film along with the reputation of other projects Sheridan has been involved with, I became somewhat optimistic going into his latest venture, Those Who Wish Me Dead. This film is similar in a lot of ways to the films that have made Sheridan popular, but it has a few key differences. Those differences are what keep it from living up to his previous work.
While the film starts out in Florida, it mostly takes place in Montana. It begins with Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) and Jack (Aidan Gillen) posing as repairmen at the home of a Florida D.A., but we quickly find out they’re not at all who they’re pretending to be. Because as they walk from the house back to their car, they create what could be the newest “Cool Guys Don’t Look At Explosions” clip as the house blows up. It turns out this D.A. had some information that he shouldn’t have (what the information is, we never find out — it just acts as the MacGuffin for the whole movie). Owen (Jake Weber), a forensic accountant, is the only other person who has the information, so he’s next on the list for Patrick and Jack. Owen takes his son Jack (Finn Little) and heads to Montana to find shelter with his police officer friend, Ethan (Jon Bernthal) and his pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore).
Meanwhile, a smoke jumper in Montana named Hannah (Jolie) is being posted at a fire lookout tower in the middle of the vast forest after she misread the wind in a previous wildfire that caused three kids to die. Ethan, her friend and ex, urges her to be careful and not act reckless. If all of this seems complicated, it is at first. The film introduces all these characters in a fairly short time at the beginning. But to its benefit and detriment, everything stays simple and straightforward from there.
The structure of this movie feels like an inverted pyramid. At the beginning, there is so much going on — espionage, secrets, treason, explosions, assassins, escapes. But as the movie settles in, it decides to just focus on the characters and not the big picture implications of what everyone is chasing or running from. The movie has large spectacle with all of this, plus a huge forest fire at the end, but the scope of the overall story is small. That’s the benefit: it gets focused after setting up something big and sprawling. But the detriment is that even though it decides to focus on characters, it doesn’t feel like we get to know any of them enough. With all the different characters, situations, and dynamics, it’s ultimately just a whole lot of nothing. Lots of stuff is happening, but there’s not a lot of meaning behind it.
All of the actors are doing great work with what they’re given. Jolie’s trauma and PTSD is at the center of the film and she anchors it well, while Bernthal plays a more tender and loving character than we often get to see from him, which is refreshing (he’s a great actor, but seems to get very samey roles). And relative newcomer Senghore shows that she has real talent, so I’m hoping we get to see more from her in the future. But the standout for me is Hoult. Maybe I haven’t seen enough of his work, but I was stunned that he’s able to pull of the unendingly cold, seemingly less-than-human killer who will stop at nothing until his target is dead. It’s a type of character that I didn’t anticipate from him and much of the time, I was expecting him to have a change of heart at the end. Because, come on, he’s Beast from X-Men and J.R.R. Tolkien! He’s a good guy! Now that it’s way too late, I totally see why he was in the running for the version of Batman that Robert Pattinson will be bringing us in 2022.
But in the end, I can’t tell if Those Who Wish Me Dead is really trying to say all that much. It abandons its ideas of political corruption pretty much as soon as they’re brought up and Hannah’s PTSD is barely explored. So all I could really garner from it was the eternal struggle of finding yourself inside a fight between right and wrong. Maybe I’m putting my eighth grade English teacher hat on and reading too much into this, but the wildfire had to be a metaphor for something. Exactly what, though, isn’t quite clear.
This is certainly a thrilling movie that’s well done visually, and I was completely invested on that level. It’s just the next step that was missing. The focus was on the spectacle and not enough on the characters. You’ll get the slightest inkling to start caring for them, but you can only go as far as the movie takes you. Unfortunately, it’s not far enough.