Taylor Sheridan has quickly become one of my favorite writers in Hollywood penning several of the best thrillers to grace the big screen over the last half-decade. Sheridan has penned no less than six screenplays including his unofficial Frontier Trilogy consisting of “Sicario”, Oscar nominee “Hell or High Water”, and his mainstream directorial debut “Wind River”. He also has a “Sicario” sequel under his belt and this year’s underwhelming Amazon original “Without Remorse”. But his sixth film, and latest directorial effort, is “Those Who Wish Me Dead”, a Warner Bros. backed thriller that released on HBO Max and big screens nationwide this past weekend. Starring Angelina Jolie, the film, based on a book by Michael Koryta who was one of three writers on the project along with Sheridan and Charles Leavitt, follows a smokejumper who tries to protect a young boy from a pair of relentless assassins for a mob boss during a raging wildfire. Honestly that concept sounds much more exciting than the final product as while Sheridan’s trademark talent for thrills is well showcased there’s little here to make “Those Who Wish Me Dead” a memorable experience.
In the film Angelina Jolie plays smokejumper Hannah who suffers from PTSD after failing to rescue three kids during a previous wildfire. So, when she discovers a young boy named Connor (Finn Little) being pursued by a pair of assassin brothers (Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen) who start a wildfire to cover their tracks she decides to help. This setup had the makings of an engaging, pulse pounding experience putting the two main characters between men with guns and the relentless force of nature, but it doesn’t do much with its core ideas to create the unique flare it promised. Despite being written by one of the best thriller writers in the business, Sheridan shines more as a director here than a writer as he clearly knows how to use setting and atmosphere to his advantage as well as shock the audience with moments of unforgivable ruthlessness from his villains. Even with enough fun moments to make “Those Who Wish Me Dead” more than watchable it feels strangely tame and by-the-numbers compared to Sheridan’s past screenplays. What I expected to be a manhunt in the middle of a scorched Earth with nowhere to hide feels like a slow build to a climax where the fire only really plays a part in the final conflict. To me the whole thing feels like a mishmash of sadly downplayed ideas that should have made for a more interesting premise.
It’s not like the performers fail to bring anything to table either. Angelina Jolie turns in what I felt was a pretty good performance in a role that honestly feels beneath her and Finn Little shows quite a bit of genuine emotion as a young child actor. Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen make for a pair of entertaining villains you just love to hate while other stars like Jon Bernthal, Medina Senghore and even the usually comedic Tyler Perry have their moments to shine. No, the reason this movie doesn’t work isn’t because of the acting it’s because it depends too much on these performances to elevate the screenplay and sadly they can only do so much. Even the most entertaining and engaging performances can’t add something special to a plot that feels too comfortable settling for the same old song and dance. The sad thing is it’s not like Sheridan can’t write a film like this. “Wind River” was a similar film with the search for a killer in the unforgiving snowscape of a reservation. Maybe part of the reason why “Those Who Wish Me Dead” didn’t work quite as well was because of the involvement of other writers, including the author of the book. The Frontier Trilogy were all penned solely by Sheridan which meant he was in complete control of his craft even when other directors had to interpret his material. Here, he appears to have had complete directorial control, but it’s the first time he’s had TWO other writers working with him and to that end it does feel like he is constrained by someone else’s vision.
Now I don’t know what went on behind the scenes nor am I insinuating that Sheridan or either of his cowriters are specifically at fault for the final product here. I am saying that maybe there were a few too many cooks in the kitchen and it is a fact that Sheridan’s two 2021 movies, the only two so far that he didn’t write on his own, were his worst to date. In spite of the mildly uninspired writing though it needs to be said again that Sheridan as a director and his actors get everything they can out of the story bringing acceptable emotional depth and intensity to what should have been a much more creative premise. I would have liked to see the forest fire play a bigger role, Jolie get more opportunities to show her bonding with Finn Little’s character, or more insight into what makes the villains tick, but it feels like a lot of that was left on the cutting room floor. Somewhere hidden beneath the generic nature of this story is a much bigger, more emotionally driven thriller deserving of Sheridan’s name. As is though the final product is merely as entertaining as it needs to be and nothing much more. It doesn’t even give me the urge to read the book to see if that was any better.
“Those Who Wish Me Dead” isn’t going to turn any head or maybe even win over any new fans for Sheridan, but it does prove a few things. One is that Sheridan seems to be better when the writing is left in his own hands and he seems to be more talented when writing original material than adapting someone else’s work for the big screen. Two is that he is capable of making something good out of something mediocre, even if it’s his own screenplay, seeing as this is still a fun and engaging film in it’s own right. Three is that great actors can only do so much to make a movie good as everyone involved seems to be all in and bring out the most in the material, but everything still feels oddly held back and restrained all the same. I’d still recommend this movie because Sheridan’s talent still shines through here even if it’s not his best film. Sadly though when reminiscing on the works of one of my favorite writers in the business today this will likely go unnoticed compared to many of his screenplays that dominated the latter half of the 2010s.