Angelina Jolie Gives a Fiery Performance in 'Those Who Wish Me Dead' Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Starring Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Jon Bernthal, Nicholas Hoult, Medina Senghore
Published May 17, 2021If you're going into Those Who Wish Me Dead thinking it will be another Angelina Jolie action flick à la Salt, then you're in for a delightful surprise. This is an intricately wrought neo-Western that packs a big punch and lands it in the bloodiest way. But unlike the irreverence of Tomb Raider or Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Those Who Wish Me Dead has heart and on-point performances delivered not just by Jolie (who gives a familiar-to-her character remarkable depth and nuance) but the entire main cast, even if ultimately doesn't satisfactorily loop together all the parallel narratives that make up this film's unique tale.
When you're adapting a novel, there are certain elements that are necessarily cut or glossed over. Those Who Wish Me Dead is adapted from Michael Koryta's novel of the same name, and director Taylor Sheridan weaves together three plot lines.
Hannah is a smokejumper in Montana who has PTSD after having read the wind wrong in a forest fire, resulting in several deaths and leading Hannah to get posted to a fire lookout tower. Meanwhile, in Florida, forensic accountant Owen (Jake Weber) and his son Connor (Finn Little) go on the run, pursued by two assassins, Jack (Aidan Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult). They flee to the Montana wilderness, where Owen's ex-brother-in-law Ethan (Jon Bernthal) and his pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore) have a wilderness survival school. Owen dies, leaving Hannah to protect Connor in an attempt to make up for her past traumas.
The movie works to resolve these plot lines by throwing them together in the wilderness of Park County, MT, building suspense by letting them entwine and clash until the end, but ultimately leaving the feeling that something's missing.
Hannah's backstory is the only one hinted at because she has night terrors, but no other character gets this treatment. This is a quality that the script gets from the novel (Koryta co-wrote the screenplay); the characters are complex and well-acted, but watching this movie feels like stepping into a play halfway through and watching it to its end.
Hannah complements the persona Jolie wore in the '90s and early-'00s. This character is an fitting choice for her; this is familiar but still new territory. Hannah curses like a sailor and has a sarcastic sense of humour, necessitated no doubt by the boys' club quality of her job; her colleagues are all rough'n'tough men. The reason why this is such an interesting role for Jolie is that it's deceptively maternal; Hannah isn't overtly maternal towards Conner, but she will still risk her life protecting him, because she sees this a a second chance at preventing the tragedy that still haunts her. Jolie does vulnerability well; roiling internal torture is something she mastered in By the Sea, and we see it in Hannah every step of the way.
In classic Jolie action flicks, we're used to seeing her characters wield guns and shoot down the bad guys; she's famous for doing her own stunts. But the Jolie in this movie has her action pared back. Don't get me wrong: Hannah gets bloodied, beaten up and struck down. But compared to the hell that Allison goes through, Hannah's misadventure pales. Allison wields a rifle on horseback while in her third trimester, shooting at Jack and skirting his fire. While Hannah's action is confined to self-defence in the moment, Allison's action, though geared toward saving her husband's and Connor's lives from the assassins, is on the offensive..
Senghore is amazing to behold as the strong, intelligent and deeply loving Allison. Allison knows that Hannah is Ethan's ex-girlfriend, and yet she doesn't have a negative word to say about her. But there's a strange aspect to Allison and Hannah's relationship, or lack thereof: the two never meet on screen, to the effect that it seems that the movie is working against letting them share screen time. Despite the fact that they're both working against the same enemy, they seem oblivious to each other's action, leaving the sense that the movie is incomplete.
Outside of Jolie and Senghore's stellar performances, Hoult also stands out. On the face of it, Holt's Peter is just a guy doing his very violent job, but when compared with his partner Jack, Peter seems as though he has some humanity in him, and he lacks the ruthlessness that courses through Jack. Little is also a standout, giving a performance that's moving without being annoyingly precocious.
Those Who Wish Me Dead's hefty story and deep characters are contained by stunning cinematography like that found in this year's other notable Western, Cowboys. The towering trees of the Montana wilderness — its snaking and shimmering creeks, the riveting thunder and striking lightning — are captured by director of photography Ben Richardson with a sense of awe in the face of an indifferent nature. The forest fires are depicted not with a romantic beauty but with fear; if you don't get out of the flames' way, you will be consumed, Richardson's framing seems to say.
This is a fun action flick, unabashedly full of gore, swearing and delicately detailed characters. With this neo-Western, Jolie shows she's still got the gumption and strength for action, and also the depth as an actor to simmer with trauma. (New Line)