Angelina Jolie. The most household of household names. You won’t find anyone in the world who doesn’t know who Jolie is by name and name alone. Before we even get to her actual credentials — roles like Lara Croft in the original Tomb Raider movies, Mr. And Mrs. Smith, and Maleficent — she boasts accolades that include several Humanitarian awards and Oscars, and she even became a Special Envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She’s got a heavy business card, is what I’m getting at here. And it’s exactly that kind of star power and genuine, groundbreaking talent that serves not only as the shining light over Those Who Wish Me Dead from Warner Bros., but also the biggest obstacle standing in the way of an otherwise plain neo-western thriller.
Those Who Wish Me Dead was directed and co-written by Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water) and stars Angelina Jolie, Jon Bernthal, Finn Little, Nicholas Hoult, Aidan Gillen, Medina Senghore, Jake Weber and is…is that Tyler Perry? That’s a pretty full cast, and for what it’s worth, the movie gives each of them their time in the spotlight.
Veteran smokejumper Hannah Faber (Jolie) has been haunted by her inability to save three boys from a forest fire prior to the events of the film. After being chosen, she’s posted in a fire watchtower (You know, like from that game, “Firewatch”) by herself in the middle of the Montana forest. While in isolation, visions of that fateful fire continue to plague her.
Meanwhile, two assassin brothers, Patrick and Jack Blackwell (Hoult and Gillen respectively) murder a DA and his family who learned too much about their mysterious crime boss. After hearing about the murder on the news, Owen Casserly (Weber) takes his son Connor (Little) and tries to get help from his law enforcement brother-in-law, Ethan Sawyer (Jon Bernthal). Oh, and Ethan is the ex-boyfriend of Hannah, stationed near her watchtower with his pregnant wife. Yes, both of these storylines exist in the same 100-minute movie.
Now, obviously that’s a whole lot to unpack. First, and this is the obvious one, it’s just a lot. Too much, one might argue, and certainly too much to unfold in one film. There’s simply too many details that go ignored or neglected in this movie. What organization do the Blackwells belong too? What did Owen find out? Why did Hannah and Ethan split? These are things that probably wouldn’t be so noticeable if the movie didn’t rely on them for plot progression and relationship dynamics to make sense.
Perhaps the storyline that suffers the most is Hannah’s. The trailer for Those Who Wish Me Dead featured a lot of the action-heavy scenes that make it into the final product. But it also promised a deep look into Jolie’s character and the remorse and trauma she feels. What we do see in that respect is heavily undermined by all the action scenes, special effects, and intense shootouts getting in the way. In other words, Jolie’s grounded performance — rooted in the contemporary western trope of the troubled, mournful hero — is constantly conflicting with high-octane, high-noon gunplay.
It can be jarring when the movie cuts from a close up of Hanna or Connor, two characters brought together by tragedy, to a scene where the Blackwells are on the side of the road to meet with a shady, “Man in Black” figure played by…okay, that is Tyler Perry!
On the other hand, Jolie’s performance isn’t the only one to write home about. The entire cast does a pretty stellar job playing their parts, even though they’re mostly cliched. Hoult and Gillen have perfect chemistry as the two main villains, and Bernthal has exactly the kind of bravado you’d expect from a “plays by his own rules” town deputy. Even Finn Little, the youngest of the cast, doesn’t have a hard time keeping up with his older co-stars.
The problem is that while everyone else is acting in a no-holds-barred action thriller, Jolie is playing two roles. The role of a 90s badass, but also a deeper, grieving woman trying to forgive herself.
To Sheridan’s credit, both of these intended stories are directed impressively. He knows when to use close-up shots that examine the grief of these characters effectively, and the quick cuts of the various action sequences are exciting to follow. It can just be a little distracting when the movie decides to switch gears. I find myself wanting to see more of Jolie’s backstory. Maybe dive deeper into her character, beyond just the tragic events that haunt her throughout. It’s as if there was a grander vision hidden in this movie that just kept getting stifled by clichés and tired tropes that, while performed wholeheartedly, don’t have many layers to them beyond what’s obvious.
Fans of Sheridan’s previous directing ventures will find a lot of the mainstays that have made him such a powerhouse of modern American westerns with something to say about our violent present, but Those Who Wish Me Dead is certainly a less focused entry.
Those Who Wish Me Dead opens in theaters and on HBO Max for a limited time on May 14.
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