The exact reasoning for anyone being drawn to a new film varies; my reason? Those Who Wish Me Dead contained a grim and excitable title and an intriguing cast to boot. Admittedly its marketing material also made an impact on me as it advertised itself as a “film by Taylor Sheridan” (writer of Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River). Now, there is absolutely no doubt that both of these aspects are technically true, no smoke and mirrors here – this film is indeed grim and it was technically directed by Taylor Sheridan. BUT… and there is a but; there’s something to this that isn’t quite as it seems. Let’s imagine a scenario for a moment; you walk down a street and approach a vending machine, this machine sells only two drinks, Coke or Sprite, you select Coke and the vending machine spits out a Diet Coke; you think to yourself “well, technically a Diet Coke is still a Coke”, but nonetheless you still feel a little cheated by not receiving the real thing. Those Who Wish Me Dead is a lot like a Diet Coke – it’s a grim film, but it’s not a grim film; it’s a film by Taylor Sheridan, but it’s not a Taylor Sheridan film. Unlike the vending machine scenario, there are no lies in this film’s marketing material, only the unfortunate truth that it doesn’t quite live up to what the big names behind the project suggest. But just because a film doesn’t achieve its maximum potential, that doesn’t make it devoid of enjoyability.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is a solid, fun, and often thrilling flick that (mostly) does what any exciting thriller should; it keeps you on your toes while heating up toward its climactic finale. The film itself follows the journey of a young boy named Connor (Finn Little) who witnessed a murder and is now lost in the Montana wilderness alongside a hardened fire-woman named Hannah (Angelina Jolie) who is now tasked as his protector. Dual character chemistry is the running theme of this film, as Connor and Hannah spend much of the film communicating and planning their next steps in how they’ll survive the ensuing storm to come. Alongside them is a duo of assassins who are hunting down Connor as a way to tie up all the loose ends for their job. These assassins are played by Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult – this team of cold-blooded killers keep their chatter to a minimum between one another but exhibit a fantastic combination of combat tactics and realistic communication in their effort to hunt down their next victim. Seeing this grounded combat reminded me of how far action sequences have come in the past decade – it’s nice to see realistic combat appear in random thrillers, even if in such minimal quantities.
Those Who Wish Me Dead has the propensity to go from 0-100 in more than a few ways; in spite of the fact that it largely aims for a grounded filmatic tone, emulating the kind of Western crime-thriller you’d get from Taylor Sheridan – now, I say aim, because it doesn’t exactly always strike true. This film has a tendency to enter a goofy category at times; for instance, there are sequences in this film where lightning begins attacking characters like artillery strikes, yes, I said sequences, plural. But these gripes could equally come across as endearing goofy moments as they could immersion breaking “issues”, entirely dependent on one’s taste. What is endearing about this film is the performance by child actor Finn Little, as he holds the most impressive and heartfelt performance in the film, in spite being paired with Jolie, who also helms quite an emotionally driven character. Without the solid performance from this young actor, admittedly the foundations of this film’s structural integrity may be in question as Hannah (Jolie) would be the only character to root for.
Circling back to our vending machine analogy, I think it’s important to understand that despite being directed by Taylor Sheridan, this isn’t really one of his films, but rather a vessel he’s manning. A Sheridan film in my view is defined by one core rule, it is written wholly and truly Sheridan alone – and Those Who Wish Me Dead is quite far from this rule; as Sheridan holds a supportive writing credit on a film that is an adaptation of a novel. This is, for all intents and purposes, not a Sheridan film. A Taylor Sheridan film has a very specific tone and air about it, you know it when you see it. A Sheridan film lacks exposition, is deeply dialogue driven, and focuses so heavily on character that ultimately the story itself is the character. If you go in expecting a lean screenplay with complex characters, you’ll leave quite starved.
In terms of production, there is a clear commitment to realism and authenticity which helps the film feel much more immersive than it has any right to be. The action sequences are well-shot, providing tension and a dose of creativity which allows a further sense of immersion to be felt. The camera-work to capture the grandiose of the wildfire manages to portray just how threatening it can be and allows the audience to truly feel the heat of such a natural disaster – the only point of concern is that it is merely used as a plot device. The set-design is a key element of the film that assists in adding to the experience of watching the film – as it challenges the core characters thus adding tension. Sheridan’s films often have different biomes, this being a forest that is burning down, the techniques used to capture this are impeccable. The production design alongside cinematography perfectly compliments each other by establishing a tense tone and creating visceral atmosphere.
Brian Tyler does a fantastic job in building up to the big moments with his score during Those Who Wish Me Dead, where the use of fast paced string pieces and heavy drum beats help drive the tension you are feeling in the scenes they are played in. However, the one thing he is unable to achieve is landing the tension build-up in a satisfying way, as the scenes usually fade to black or the score falls flat and ruins the momentum that was being built in the lead up to major scenes. The sound design throughout the film provides a nice assist in the tension build up as the crackle of the fire and embers can be heard faintly off-screen which gradually intensifies and becomes louder throughout the dialogue moments.
Those Who Wish Me Dead won’t make a hugely memorable mark as a smartly written thriller; but it’s got some tight tension, a heartfelt performance, and some gnarly shootouts – which admittedly is enough for me to stay satisfied – even if I still feel a tad cheated from how un-Sheridan-like the final shipped product is.