Taylor Sheridan is a better writer than he is a director; the two films that he has directed so far prove this hypothesis. There's a niggling feeling that in the hands of a more experienced filmmaker, his latest, Those Who Wish Me Dead, would've been even better than it already is.
Much like how Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie elevated Sheridan's scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water, perhaps a new pair of eyes would've discovered exciting elements in his screenplay for Those Who Wish Me Dead, a drama-thriller about an outcast firefighter who is forced to protect an on-the-run child. But perceived through Sheridan's neo-Western sensibilities, it remains exactly that.
This isn't to say that the film doesn't work — far from it, it's a hyper-lean, confidently made old-school chase thriller — but I wish that the characters had more to do than simply fulfil the requirements of the plot.
Angelina Jolie delivers a true movie star performance as Hannah, a smokejumper who is struggling emotionally, after failing to save three young campers and a colleague in a forest fire. In a punishment posting, she's been sent to live in an observation tower in the middle of a forest. On one of her rounds, she runs into a lost young boy at the side of a creek, and noticing his state, offers help. She brings young Connor to her observation tower, where she learns that he's been marked for murder.
Sheridan sets up the conflict with surprising confidence — the first act is devoted almost entirely to Connor, who is forced to go on the run after a couple of hitmen assassinate his father. In his final moments, Connor's dad gives him some secret documents, and instructs him to get them to his brother, a sheriff's deputy who also happens to be close friends with Hannah.
We are never told about the contents of the documents, nor given a solid explanation as to why Connor's dad was even killed. But that's the sort of conviction with which Sheridan tells his stories. He understands that this information will add nothing to the plot; his focus is on the people.
He surrounds Jolie with a spectacular supporting cast, which includes Jon Bernthal as deputy sheriff Ethan, Medina Senghore as his wife Allison, and Nicholas Hoult and Aiden Gillen as the Blackwells — the two Terminators hot on Connor's trail. Tyler Perry pops by in a surprising one-scene cameo as the Blackwells' boss.
This is the sort of studio movie that used to get made a decade ago. And that's squarely the style that Sheridan is going for in Those Who Wish Me Dead. He directs without any visual embellishments, although his story builds to a conclusion that can only be described as melodramatic. Hannah goes full momma-bear on the assassins in a fiery face-off, giving Jolie an opportunity to flex not only her dramatic chops, but her long-dormant bonafides as an action star.
Like a real Western heroine, Hannah essentially stumbles into conflict — she is like the Mad Max to Connor's Furiosa; or the Rooster Cogburn to his Mattie Ross. Her PTSD plays out in the background, and the film is only partially framed through her perspective. Underwritten as they might be, however, the supporting characters are given enough moments to stand out — Bernthal is typically feral in one scene, but it is his onscreen wife who has been given the film's most thrilling sequence.
The scene, which involves Allison turning the tables on the assassins, is about as subversive as Sheridan's script is willing to get. The rest of it settles into a comfortably predictable posture as it scratches off cliches, as if they're notches on the side of a tree. But at a rip-roaring 100 minutes, Those Who Wish Me Dead doesn't outstay its welcome; like its star, it's lean, mean, and glistening in Hollywood sheen.