Angelina Jolie has a face made for cinema.
It’s those green eyes, which can go from communicating anger to desire imperceptibly. It’s her famous pout, which can devastatingly unfurl vulgarities and compliments with equal aplomb. But it’s more than just her beauty. It’s her physicality, which is forceful in a way that belies the thinness of her frame, and the overwhelming burst of charisma she brings to the screen. Yet, for all her screen presence, Jolie doesn’t guarantee a good movie. For every film of hers I adore (like her directorial effort By the Sea), there are countless others that don’t rise to the level of her stardom or skill. It’s frustrating to see one of Hollywood’s most fascinating stars often cast in lackluster work. Which is why it was so thrilling to see her given a proper vehicle onscreen again.
Going into Those Who Wish Me Dead, I was curious more than anything, especially given the involvement of Taylor Sheridan as a co-writer and director. (The film was also written by Charles Leavitt and Michael Koryta, based on the latter’s book). Sheridan, creator of the hit series Yellowstone, has been involved in work that piques my interest, including as the writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water. But his first directorial effort, Wind River, betrayed some uncomfortable racial politics in its choice to focus on white leads (in a film concerning a murder on a reservation) and did not suggest anything particularly interesting about his visual and narrative perspective as a filmmaker. But Those Who Wish Me Dead surprised me. The neo-Western inflected work is a lean, engrossing, action-packed shot of adrenaline that is striking in its aesthetic decisions and boasts some exceedingly fun turns from its actors. Most important, it proves once more why Jolie is a star. Some of the most affecting compositions in Those Who Wish Me Dead study the planes of this famous face, charting the ways it can communicate yearning, sorrow, and a devil-may-care destructiveness with clear-eyed sincerity.
The film begins somewhat jaggedly, bouncing between Montana mountain ranges and the Florida coastline, as it sets the stage for the violence that follows. On paper, the plot sounds a bit much, but bear with me. A forensic accountant, Owen (Jake Weber), finds and reports on something he was never supposed to see: a news report concerning the district attorney, who has been killed in an explosion. A mysterious group of powerful people, who want to keep that information hidden, hire two hired assassins, Jack (Aidan Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) to track down Owen. He sets off with his young son, Connor (Finn Little), to acquire the help of his former brother-in-law, a sheriff named Ethan (played by the always powerful Jon Bernthal) in Montana. Owen is murdered by the assassins, and during a frantic quest to survive, Connor crosses paths with a Montana smoke jumper, Hannah (Jolie), living in a fire tower. The two bond as they evade the assassins, who start a massive fire to cause confusion.
This may sound a bit tangled, but the film is in fact quite simple in narrative design, which is all for the best. Its pleasure comes through its striking visuals and the way they lend tension to the story. Sheridan and his cinematographer Ben Richardson treat the natural surroundings with a sense of awe that demonstrates the forces working against the characters: Flames lick the sky, eating through everything in their path; there are rolling verdant hills; water flows through crystalline blue creeks, oblivious to the horror just at their edges. There is beauty in these moments, but beneath it is an understanding of the power of nature and its fragility in the face of human destruction. (That the fire Hannah and Connor contend with is manmade isn’t lost on me.) This beauty is intertwined with some truly bracing action sequences, where nature and other people are often working against the characters. None of this would work if we were not invested in their fates, due to the skill of the actors involved. It’s a film as successful at making you care about the characters as it is at putting them through hell.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is lean on characterization. It grants us a window into the lives of these people but not the full story. There are some intriguing histories at play here, and while I would love to learn more about their backstories, the film’s dedication to the present moment in these people’s lives keeps the story in high gear. Even the smallest roles in the film feel lived in. I can imagine, thanks to the sincerity of the actors’ performances, that these people have lived full lives before they came onscreen. But it’s the major players that truly make the film a suspenseful ride. Gillen and Hoult bring the appropriate blend of chilly determination to their assassin roles, their unflinching visages showing the depth of their moral turpitude. Finn Little grants the film one of the best turns by a child actor I’ve seen in a minute. He’s blessedly not precocious. He seems just like any kid, both curious and easily bruised. He strikes the right shell-shocked chord in conveying the ways Connor is struggling in the wake of his father’s murder and why he needs someone like Hannah so desperately. Bernthal, once again, proves why he’s one of the most exciting American actors working today. He brings a trademark swagger and tough-guy bravado that is undercut by the depth of his compassion, especially for his pregnant wife, Allison (Medina Senghore). When Allison walked onscreen I got a bit worried considering the racial dynamics in Sheridan’s work. What fate will befall this dark-skinned black woman? Little did I know she would become my favorite character from the film, and it’s most dynamic.
It’s Senghore, not Jolie, who has the most nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat action sequence. Patrick and Jack break into her home when Ethan is not there. They verbally and physically threaten her, pointing a hot poker at her face. However, she is a resourceful, highly intelligent badass, and not the kind of dame to be messed with. The sequence is a taut masterwork — the direction, blocking, sound design, stuntmen, and actors work in tandem to create a series of tense moments that highlights the strengths of the film, including how much fun everyone seems to be having pulling it off. I don’t want to go too far into the actual beats of the scene, but suffice it to say, it left me cheering. In another world, maybe Allison would be the lead of this story. That’s how ripe her narrative is. It was unexpectedly poignant to see a dark-skinned black woman who is so capable and loved. And watching Allison’s standout scenes made me realize one of the greatest aspects of the film: You can feel it in your body. Loving film is often thought of as an intellectual exercise. But watching Those Who Wish Me Dead reminded me of the kind of films that can make you yelp with joy or fear.
Even though the film is usurped momentarily by Senghore (who better be cast in every damn thing after this), Jolie brings it. Memory haunts Hannah. She can’t escape a past mistake she blames herself for — misreading the wind when she was attempting to quell a fire, leading to a peer and several children being killed. Jolie plays Hannah at a register she knows intimately as an actor: the self-destructive, charismatic woman who’ll destroy herself sooner than choose to heal. Connor forces Hannah to change her perspective, and to choose life. “It is impossible to feel sorry for myself around you,” she says in one of the most emotionally resonant scenes in the film. Jolie has grown more angular as she’s aged, and its only made her a more fascinating subject to direct. The camera studies the grooves of her face against the campfire in this scene, lending her an otherworldly quality. Throughout, she is entrancing to watch, whether she is examining her body after being struck by lightning, trading barbs with Ethan, or comforting Connor. In many ways, Those Who Wish Me Dead feels like a marriage between the disparate aspects of Jolie and her image as a star: the action films of her earlier years and her more maternal image over the last decade-plus. If this is the second (or third?) act in Jolie’s career, I’m more than game for the journey.
The plot of Those Who Wish Me Dead stretches credulity at many points, and I imagine this will grate on some viewers. But I don’t go to films for realism. I go to feel and to be awed. Those Who Wish Me Dead gets the truth of the emotional story it wishes to tell, and that’s what matters. Like the great Bette Davis once said, “Acting should be bigger than life. Scripts should be bigger than life. It should all be bigger than life.” Those Who Wish Me Dead certainly is, without losing sight of the internal hungers and needs of its characters. Most intriguingly, it acts as an argument that the bigger-than-life stars like Jolie can be a powerful tool in a film’s arsenal if you know what to do with them.