This thriller takes a bit to catch a spark, but then gets going like a house on fire.
Those Who Wish Me Dead feels like a throwback to classic 90’s “man versus nature” thrillers like Backdraft or The Edge, in a good way. It has strong leading performances, appropriately ruthless antagonists, and plenty of visual spectacle of the “giant walls of fire” variety. The beginning arc of the movie moves a tad slow, but fans of Taylor Sheridan’s work (Hell or High Water, Sicario) should expect that all of the meticulous set up pays off with a breathless final act.
Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)
A teenage murder witness finds himself pursued by two assassins in the Montana wilderness with a fire-fighter (Angelina Jolie) tasked with protecting him — and a forest fire threatening to consume them all.
The sticking point for many viewers is likely to be the first half hour. The script takes the long way around in moving all of our pieces into place, and I didn’t always agree with how many hoops the screenwriters made themselves jump through. Why set the first act in Florida when we need to get to Montana? It could have just as easily (and more plausibly) have started in California or Oregon. There’s nothing really dictating that the father and son fleeing well-connected criminals needs to trek across country, and it leads to a lot of dead time. Dead time with pretty scenery, but if I wanted a road trip I could fire up Follow That Bird!
Sheridan does make some hay with all of that downtime. He keeps teasing scenarios where the assassins could be right around the corner, ratcheting up the tension. It was a noble attempt, but the film really could have trimmed some of the fat to get into the meat of the story.
Fuel for the Flames.
The characters in this drama are all interesting: a fire-jumper (Jolie) haunted by a past tragedy, a small town sheriff (Jon Bernthal) and his survivalist wife (Medina Senghore) expecting their first child, and a pair of assassins (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) who have an intriguing, brotherly relationship despite being stone cold killers. The acting is top notch across the board. I only wished we had more time with them all, as once the pot starts boiling, it rapidly bubbles over.
Burning Wall of Fire.
I like how Sheridan uses the elements against both sides. Even though our killers start the fire, once its going it has no loyalty and presents them as much a threat as it does to their prey. It’s a four-way race to the center, and that keeps the second half of the movie moving at lightning speeds.
The cinematography is on point. The landscape shots are beautiful, and shots of the elements are harrowing. For a movie that takes place 60% of the time at night and most of the remaining time lit by flames and clouded with ash, the shots are remarkably composed and easy to watch. It even has a sequence where people are swinging flashlights around that didn’t make me want to gouge my eyes out. Apparently Sheridan hates getting an eyeball full of poorly choreographed stabs of light as much as I do.
I enjoyed my time with Those Who Wish Me Dead. It’s not perfect, but it does what it sets out to do with considerable style and talent. We so rarely get these types of movie that aren’t either a schlocky disaster flick (looking at you, Gerard Butler!) or Made-For-TV, low budget affairs. A strong cast and well-crafted characters help with much of the heavy lifting, and the sheer spectacle and smartly paced action sequences bring the film home in an engaging and satisfying manner.