Taylor Sheridan’s Those Who Wish Me Dead — adapted from Michael Koryta’s 2014 novel of the same name — starts as three stories before whittling its way down to one. In the first, a smokejumper is haunted by memories of a burn gone wrong, in which she and other firefighters leapt into the wilds of a flame-swept Montana forest only for the wind to behave differently than they expected, and for a trio of young boys, running to be rescued, to succumb before their eyes. It’s the kind of job casualty you don’t simply get over. Suffice it to say, she doesn’t.
In the next strand, set many miles away, two men arrive at the home of a district attorney, ostensibly to check the gas — but really, it turns out, to plant an explosive. This is an act of vengeance. And the explosion that follows, which will be sure to make the news, sets a clock in motion for the pair’s next kill, who will no doubt hear about it, and who will obviously run, as one does. This is the final strand: the prey in question. A forensic accountant — the only person, in the wake of the D.A.’s murder, holding the information that is apparently worth killing for — making a run for it. No one needs to tell this man that he and his son are next.
This is what Those Who Wish Me Dead, a lively, satisfying neo-western and action-thriller, establishes in only its opening minutes. Those minutes fly by, with these stories twining and weaving and competing for our attention. That is, until the inevitable happens. And right alongside it, the unpredictable. Fire — devastating, pure, easy to romanticize, hard to control — is the central axis of this movie, and it holds a heavy symbolic power in this movie, to say nothing of the very real, incredibly grounded dangers it poses. Sheridan’s sense of drama isn’t entirely grounded; the relationships are. But the melodrama of it all — which knowingly veers into somewhat corny terrain on occasion — feels appreciably larger than life, in the way that good fiction should.
Just look at its star, Angelina Jolie, who plays the trauma-ridden firefighter at the heart of the movie, Hannah Faber: a tough woman who can and does hang with the boys and is a little rowdy — but never to the point of losing her composure, except when acting on an apparent death wish. Faber failed her psych evaluation after “the incident” and is now relegated to a smokejumper version of desk duty, staked out in a watch tower in the forest so as to keep an eye on the goings-on out there, fires, storms and the like. Do I believe in Jolie as a smokejumper, flinging herself into fires for humanity’s sake? Well, no, but probably mostly because it’s usually hard to believe that veritable movie stars can be form-fitted to the role of any convincingly working-class hero. Something about Sheridan’s movie, however, and Jolie’s star power, makes it easy to imagine the calluses on her hands for the 90-ish minutes that our disbelief needs to be held aloft. And she can carry a movie. By the time that the young boy on the run, Connor (Finn Little), emerges into view, everything is in place to make you believe in Hannah Faber’s care, intelligence, and — most crucially — her life-preserving sense of authority.
This comes in handy, in a movie in which those assassins (played, quite nicely, by Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen) have, on top of leaving a body count behind them specked with the brain matter of innocents, start a fire when they get to Faber’s so-called neck of the woods. The tie between these two men — to say nothing of these men and their boss — is more intriguing than it has any right to be, not least because of the glints of interest Sheridan takes in how they react to each other. There’s a lot to be said for a reaction shot that wordlessly communicates deviations from the given. Those Who Wish Me Dead is, in so many ways, a couples’ movie: father and son assassin, Jolie and her ward, and, last but hardly least, the local sheriff, played by Jon Bernthal, and the sheriff’s wife, played by Medina Senghore with a tenacity that damn well better earn her a lot more work. This last pair matters for a number of reasons, but most urgent is their background as the instructors for a survival school — as in, their background as people whose default is being prepared for the bullshit wizardry of the unexpected.
The pleasure, again, is in seeing it all play out, in simply seeing how these characters, all of them, go about the business of trying to survive each other. Sheridan’s writing (he shares a screenwriting credit with Koryta and Charles Leavitt) and the quicksand pull of his cast work well together. Sheridan is primarily known for playing a police chief so squeaky-clean and law-abiding — Manichean, really — that other characters called him “Captain America.” His writing for film and television is a bit more intricate, interpersonally, if not always morally. The scripts of Hell or High Water (2016), Sicario (2015), and its 2018 sequel, 2017’s Wind River, and the recent Michael B. Jordan vehicle Without Remorse — most of them variations on the heroic tropes of Westerns, some more successful than others — are often notably old fashioned in style and substance, intriguing for downplaying the instinct to subvert the genre outright in favor of adding more meat to its achy old bones. They’re notable, as well, for their ongoing reminder that the genre is flexible enough to accommodate the drug wars at the U.S./Mexico border, the sometimes-flailing, sometimes-moral intentions of local authorities, crimes against the indigenous, and a story about a pair of desperate farmers-turned-bank robbers at the margins of American life and labor. Frontier stories, all of them, with all their accommodating, thorny myths; myths written into the DNA of the narratives that American movies have so often told us about ourselves.
So: a fraught genre, in so many ways. And Sheridan’s weaker efforts, as a writer, lag a bit in reckoning with the implications of the messes they knowingly dredge up. They bite off a little more than they can chew. A wise approach to character can’t quite patch over a shitstorm. And florid writing in the style of the genre’s novelist-auteurs — Cormac McCarthy comes to mind — has also marred some of his work; this is part of the problem with Wind River, if only part.
Sheridan’s newest directorial effort beats Wind River by several miles, playing to his strengths as a writer and constructor of character without sacrificing the ugliness that interests him so. The satisfactions of Those Who Wish Me Dead are old, movie’s-movie satisfactions. It’s corny in mostly the right ways and surprisingly intricate in its telling, with its sometimes heavy-handed psychological throughways meeting their match in the more sensitive, sturdy details. Often we talk about what actors bring to films when they become directors in terms of how “good they are with actors.” This can ring true for Sheridan — Those Who Wish Me Dead is certainly an example of how well he understands the immense appeal of Angelina Jolie and that gaze of steel she deploys throughout.
But acting taught Sheridan a few things about writing, too — clearly. He’s on the record as an opponent of unnecessary exposition, having been given too many bullshit explanatory lines to chew in his brief career as a screen actor — the kind of actor whose face and demeanor suit him perfectly to that lane of character roles often employed merely to move things along. Thus his insights on that front pair nicely with his interest in giving his characters, even seemingly minor ones, a little more room to reveal things of themselves, to make choices that they then take a moment to sit with — the world-weary wisdom of people way too inured to extraordinary violence.
These are the dynamics that make Those Who Wish Me Dead a little slicker and more exciting than your average genre film — a little more satisfying, for embracing heroic follies and purifying symbolism in ways that only great, pulpy fiction can. Inevitably, this is a movie that must end with a showdown. But the assassins are hardly the be-all, on that front. There’s a fire raging, after all, and a past to confront, and fears to conquer. And it is corny — I cannot think of a more apt word. I imagine that, for some, the movie’s structure will play unevenly, seem a little weird in its jumping and drifting. But the contours of this story, and the tinges of genuine melancholy thrown into our path along the way, are very much to the point. They make it all work, and make it worth it.