Another post-pandemic film yawning to be graded on a curve, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” relies on two main attractions: seeing Angelina Jolie back in quasi-action mode, a role at which she is quite adept (see: “Salt”); and Taylor Sheridan, whose directorial efforts (“Wind River”; the TV series “Yellowstone”) have never quite measured up to his screenplays when put in somebody else’s hands (“Hell or High Water,” and “Sicario”). The finished film mildly sates the former and affirms the latter with a watchable, yet unmemorable, potboiler.
Jolie stars as Hannah Fabe, a smokejumper in Montana haunted by the lives she lost in a recent forest inferno. Her PTSD lands her a seasonal stint atop a firetower in the midst of big sky country, with only the counsel of her ex-boyfriend Ethan (Jon Bernthal) to keep the demons at bay.
Meanwhile, the brothers Blackwell (Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult), a couple of mob enforcers, take out a Florida prosecutor targeting their boss (Tyler Perry, in a too-brief appearance) before setting their sites on a forensic accountant, Owen (Jake Weber), in possession of incriminating evidence. Rather than contact, ya know, the police, Owen and his son Connor (Finn Little) strike out for the Montana survival school run by brother-in-law Ethan and Allison (Medina Senghore), Ethan’s six-month-pregnant wife. In the event that misfortune befalls Owen, he inscribes a MacGuffin for Connor to make public when the time is right.
The remainder of “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is a standard-issue search for redemption in the face of literal and figurative hellfire. After starting a forest fire as cover for their bloody mission, the Blackwells inexplicable morph from ruthless precision into typical dumb movie villains, monologuing their way along a path to ineptitude. Still, their rapport is one of the film’s most compelling and, at the same time, least explicated plot points. Instead, Sheridan splits up the screen time with Owen and Connor, then Hannah and Connor, with a few passing scenes featuring Ethan and Allison sprinkled along the way.
The unfortunate result is that no relationship feels fully developed, particularly Hannah and the kid, who spend most of their time together hiding or trudging through the woods.
Although Jolie finally gets to wield a pickaxe late in the story, the movie we end up really wanting to see is Allison, a pregnant woman of color living in red state isolation who hones, and is the only character to really deploy, a steely defense to the world’s wickedness. While Jolie and her cheekbones take center stage, it’s Senghore who truly fills the “last stand” Western movie motif — perhaps it is no coincidence that Allison is the only character who gets to ride a horse. She should have been the film’s fiery fulcrum. The rest of “Those Who Wish Me Dead” goes up in smoke.
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