There are times when my target wordcount for these reviews feels restricting, when I run out of space after only scratching the surface of what I wanted to say and have to be content with calling up friends to discuss the rest. That excess of material, be it praise or criticism, is a good problem to have. There are also times when I stare at a blank document and wonder how I’m going to fill the page with words when, in person, I would sum up my viewing experience with a gesture: a shrug, a grimace, maybe a simple shake of the head no. That’s where I am with Those Who Wish Me Dead, out now in theaters and available to stream on HBO Max. It’s a movie that just struggles to be interesting, despite ostensibly having many reasons to be so.
This second feature from writer/director Taylor Sheridan, which adapts Michael Koryta’s novel of the same name, follows the collision of two storylines. In the first, forensic accountant Owen Casserly (Jake Weber) flees his Florida home with his son Connor (Finn Little) after learning his boss, a district attorney who uncovered some sensitive information, died under suspicious circumstances. They drive to Montana to meet up with Connor’s uncle, the Deputy Sheriff and survivalist Ethan Sawyer (Jon Bernthal), while two assassins Jack (Aiden Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) are hot on their trail. In the second, veteran smokejumper Hannah Faber (Angelina Jolie) is assigned to an isolated lookout tower after her last time fighting a forest fire turned tragic. Ethan worries the trauma has left her with a death wish, but when her path crosses with the hunted Casserlys, she must rediscover her will to survive.
There are enough recognizable names in the above paragraph that should have made Those Who Wish Me Dead successful, Sheridan chief among them; he’s the Oscar-nominated screenwriter behind Sicario and Hell or High Water who made a strong directorial debut with 2017’s Wind River. With him at the helm, the bones of this film should have been much stronger than they are, but the script feels like it’s going through the motions of storytelling. Everything seems thin, from the plot progression to the character development, which reeks of a fraught book-to-screen transition – things often happen that feel like they were resonant in another lifetime, when they had novelistic detail to give them meaning. Now, all that’s required to make Jolie’s Hannah the most developed character is the one flashback we constantly revisit, even though everything about it was pretty clear the first time.
The talented cast are all out there doing their things with varying levels of success, and as much as they are watchable, they don’t ever manage to reach out and spark that emotional connection with the viewer that this film desperately needs. Because of that, the pretty solid action scenes pass with little impact – the one exception being scenes involving Medina Senghore as Ethan’s pregnant wife Allison, a genuine badass who apparently wandered in from a movie with more urgency. As an admirer of his previous work, I hope to look back on Those Who Wish Me Dead years from now as merely a bump in the road for Sheridan, but for now, I’m finding it hard to hide my disappointment.