Filmmakers often struggle with spoon-feeding an audience information and providing character motivation. Director Taylor Sheridan has the opposite problem with Those Who Wish Me Dead. The film wants to be a character study, but provides no details on any character or motivation.
Angelina Jolie stars as Hannah Faber, a daredevil smokejumper who is struggling after failing to prevent the deaths of three young campers and a co-worker in a forest fire. She drinks heavily and performs risk stunts with no regard for her own safety. As a result of her behavior, the local Deputy Sherrif Ethan (Jon Bernthal) assigns Hannah to a fire lookout tower in the Montana wilderness.
Meanwhile, forensic accountant Owen (Jake Weber) sees a news story about the death of his boss and realizes he and his son Connor (Finn Little) need to go on the run from a pair of brother assassins Jack and Patrick (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult). Owen heads to Montana to stay with Ethan, his brother-in-law, and his wife Allison (Medina Senghore). On the way, Owen is killed by Jack and Patrick while Connor flees through the woods and comes across Hannah. She tends to Connor and tries to make sense of everything.
Believe it or not, the description covers the first 40 minutes of the film, but nothing is drawn out or explained. There is passing reference to Ethan being Hannah’s ex-boyfriend, but it is never mentioned again. The motivations for Owen’s work and why he is pursued by assassins is equally vague. The only ones with clear motivations are Jack and Patrick as well as Connor. The two men are paid assassins meant to do a job, while Connor just wants to survive.
Hannah seems to exist only within the confines of what transpires in the film. Her smokejumping abilities are never shown and the only flashbacks to a forest fire are ones of regret. Her relationships to others are equally as unexplained while her personality is never expanded. None of this is Jolie’s fault as she attempts to be as charismatic as possible with a character that shows nothing on the page. Bernthal is equally up to the task of turning a nothing character into a likeable counterpoint to Jolie’s reckless protagonist.
The film waivers in the realm of realism as well. Despite being stationed in the tower, Hannah seems wildly uninterested in her job, despite a forest fire taking up a major plot point. Stretching the imagination further, Hannah survives not one, but two lightning strikes, including a scene where she and Connor must cross an open field. Lightning seems specifically vindictive towards Hannah, nearly missing her a half-dozen times, and striking her in the shoulder before it stops completely.
Gillen and Hoult do a fine job as workmanlike menaces, but don’t have much to work with. Tyler Perry appears for no longer than three minutes to deliver expected exposition, but gives more vague instructions to the assassins before departing. My favorite performance is that of Senghore, who plays a highly pregnant, but highly capable survivalist. Her chemistry with Bernthal shows real depth and familiarity, but is similarly unexpanded.
This film was undoubtedly touted as a moviestar performance film for Jolie, but nothing about it is memorable or interesting beyond the idea of what the film could be. With Sheridan’s previous track record, you would think the film would deliver upon these ideas. One of the bigger disappointments of 2021.