Though the last 10 years have been quite eventful for movie star and mother of 6 Angelina Jolie, very little of her life has taken place on-screen. She was the title character in a pair of Maleficent films and voiced a character in the Kung Fu Panda franchise but besides those roles, she’s understandably focused instead on her laudable humanitarian work and working on passion projects behind the camera. Her latest thriller, Those Who Wish Me Dead, marks the first time she’s led a big-budget action movie since 2010’s Salt and it’s a reminder of how much her unique energy and screen presence has been sorely missed the past decade. In fact, the film’s main fault is that it gets distracted from her character too often and gets bogged down in lurid but comparatively empty genre obligations.
Jolie plays Hannah, a gutsy smokejumper reeling from the trauma of the three lives lost in a forest fire that she and her team stopped too late. A failed psych evaluation after the incident gets her reassigned to a fire lookout tower deep in the forest, where she spots young runaway Connor (Finn Little) in a clearing one day. His father Owen (Jake Weber), a forensic accountant, attempts to find safekeeping at his policeman brother-in-law Ethan’s (Jon Bernthal) home after discovering evidence against some dangerous men. Two ruthless hitmen (Aidan Gillen & Nicholas Hoult) catch up with Owen and Connor on the road, murdering the father while losing the son to the dense woods. Hannah and Connor must evade the assassins while also dealing with all the dangers that Mother Nature throws their way.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is the third film from writer/director Taylor Sheridan, whose pulpy neo-Westerns Hell or High Water and Wind River found conflicted protagonists fighting against the brutal and uncaring forces of nature. Instead of the arid plains of Texas or the frozen tundras of Wyoming, Sheridan sets his story this time amid the vast wilderness of Montana, where finding cell phone service is as unlikely as finding someone who doesn’t have intermediate survival skills. He and cinematographer Ben Richardson capture the lush landscape with fertile greens and fiery reds that find themselves at odds with each other. While the computer-generated lightning effects are wholly unconvincing, the combination of practical and digital fire in the film’s ablaze climax is first-rate.
The events that get the players to that thrilling third act are compelling enough but more fiddly than a story like this really requires. Hannah is set up as a female firebrand amid an order of fraternal firefighters, willing to throw around salty language to fit into the boys club, but her characterization is largely abandoned to make room for the convoluted crime plot. At one point, Tyler Perry pops up as a mob boss who stares at the middle distance while delivering a tough guy monologue to a henchman, only to disappear for the rest of the movie. Sheridan, whose screenwriting credits also include Sicario and its sequel, has penned a screenplay that too often loses sight of its characters amid the smokescreen of action-filled setups and payoffs.
Thankfully, the sturdy performances see this thriller through. Jolie brings the same kind of unpredictability and vulnerability that made her a star around the turn of the century in films like Gone in 60 Seconds and Girl, Interrupted. Newcomer Medina Senghore makes the most of her limited screen time as Ethan’s six months-pregnant wife, emerging from her compromised position as a credible threat for the pair of trained triggermen. Gillen is especially menacing as a determined killer who doesn’t let getting run over by a car and getting half of his face burned stop him from achieving his mission. Despite suffering from a totally unmemorable title (From The Ashes, for one, would’ve worked better), Those Who Wish Me Dead is another no-nonsense frontier story from a filmmaker who puts the “stern” in neo-Western.
Score – 3/5
New movies coming this weekend:
Streaming on Netflix is Army of the Dead, a Zack Snyder-directed horror action film starring Dave Bautista and Ella Purnell about a group of mercenaries who plot a heist on a Las Vegas casino during a zombie outbreak.
Available to rent on demand is Four Good Days, a family drama starring Glenn Close and Mila Kunis about a mother helping her daughter work through four crucial days of recovery from substance abuse.
Opening in theaters is Dream Horse, a sports movie based on a true story starring Toni Collette and Damian Lewis about a small-town bartender who begins training a racehorse with the help of her friends and family.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup