REVIEW: ‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’ is a thriller incapable of igniting excitement and offering resolutions

Boyce Rucker, Contributing Writer

One can say that the thriller genre carries a wide array of possibilities that all function to offer viewers tension, excitement and intrigue that forces them to think outside the box in regard to the film’s narratives. These aspects of the thriller genre are especially present in the first trio of feature films written by screenwriter and director Taylor Sheridan, consisting of “Sicario” (2015), “Hell or High Water” (2016)  and “Wind River” (2017). As neo-westerns, each of the three films holds the distinction for their grounded nature, hard-boiled action, nuanced performances from A-list stars, and social commentary on the modern American frontier.  

Having been established as an original and expressive voice in modern cinema, it should not come as a surprise that major companies like Warner Bros. would seek him out. Released in theaters and to HBO Max on May 14, 2021, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is the latest feature film to be both co-written and directed by Sheridan. The film appears to be much more commercialized compared to his previous films; however, the film falls flat due to the degradation of what made his most notable films stand out.

The film is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by co-writer Michael Koryta. Set in the wilderness of Park County, Montana, the film follows smoke jumper Hannah Faber (Angelina Jolie) as she struggles to cope with an error that led to the deaths of her colleagues and civilian campers during a forest fire. Now a fire lookout, she comes across a boy (Finn Little) in the forest who witnessed the murder of his father at the hands of two ruthless assassins (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult). In possession of valuable information from his father, the boy takes shelter with Hannah to evade the assassins. Their fight for survival is further complicated by the presence of a raging forest fire.

Angelina Jolie and Jon Bernthal in “Those Who Wish Me Dead” (2021). (Taylor Sheridan/BRON Studios)

The film’s narrative moves at a straightforward pace and does not offer sufficient enough characterization. The opening half-hour sets up an intriguing plot but moves at a slow pace for the sake of exposition. The introduction to Jolie’s character humanizes her in a way that doesn’t immediately paint her as the hero of the film, but as a flawed individual. The introduction to the pair of assassins is executed well and gives viewers enough visual information about them to emphasize the banterful relationship and cold professionalism between them. The opening hour sets up interesting elements like the employer of the assassins, the vital evidence and Hannah’s trauma, but it never feels fully fleshed out as it should be and not much is resolved by the end of the film. 

As the latter half of the film turns into an adventure-type film that lacks subtlety or effective tension, the opening hour appears to be an empty promise for a grounded thriller that never happens. The realistic nature of the film is gone as two characters run across a field to evade lighting bolts, or when a character is set on fire and only suffers a minimal burn scar. The characters all turn into unnatural action movie archetypes by the film’s end. 

In regard to action, most of the shootouts lack a sense of tension or high stakes, save for a notable one in the climax. The forest fire doesn’t appear to be a significant part of the film either until the climactic fight scene; for the most part, it just sets up a deadline for the characters to quickly progress through the story. Even then, the fire doesn’t function as too big a threat for the characters. Overall, the film’s action doesn’t feel weighty enough to convey intensity or make it seem as though the characters are really in danger. 

Nicholas Hoult in “Those Who Wish Me Dead” (2021). (Taylor Sheridan/BRON Studios)

The cast does well at providing naturalistic performances. Jolie delivers a likability and charisma to Hannah that plays off well with Little’s Connor. Their chemistry is highlighted by banter and emotional moments that give audiences incentive to care about their characters. 

The supporting cast’s performances are fine, but they feel hindered by the limitations of the script. Jon Bernthal does well as the sheriff character, but his character feels unoriginal since he’s given overused tropes like the pregnant wife and being the straight-arrow cop without much distinction. Gillen delivers menace as the older assassin while sharing chemistry with Hoult’s younger assassin; initially, it seems like there’s a layer of dimensions to the characters, especially in the nuances of uncertainty from Hoult, but they aren’t fully developed and their characterization doesn’t go anywhere interesting. 

On another note, a prime example of the script’s limitations is the casting of Tyler Perry as the assassins’ employer, in what could easily be classified as a cameo due to his short screen time. He only ever appears in the one scene to encourage the assassins to find Connor, and it feels like wasted casting as it feels like a subplot setup that doesn’t feel relevant at the film’s end. While the performers do good with what they’re given, the biggest hindrance is the lack of sufficient characterization.

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” functions as a thriller marked by inconsistency in its narrative, unrealized characters and no thematic resonance. Along with “Sicario: Day of The Soldado” (2018) and “Without Remorse” (2021), also co-written by Sheridan, the film is the third recent consecutive misfire in his filmography. As the three films branch off of or are adapted from existing works, it is evident that Sheridan’s strength may lie in crafting smaller and original films. In a month filled with thrillers, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” fails to live up to expectations and stand apart from other films in the genre.