The star plays a Montana smokejumper who finds herself shepherding a traumatized boy to safety from a raging fire and two ruthless killers in this violent thriller.
Taylor Sheridan folds together the elemental terror of malevolent nature with the blood-curdling fear of pursuit by a pair of highly trained hitmen to suspenseful effect in Those Who Wish Me Dead. If you can get past the miraculously dewy complexion and on-point smoky-eye look of Angelina Jolie as a toughened Montana Forest Service firefighter, it’s a pleasure to see her back in full movie-star mode in a grown-up thriller. Her role provides scope for gnawing demons, maternal warmth and kick-ass survival skills — including some cool retribution with an ax.
Like Sheridan’s directing debut Wind River, this New Line thriller meshes big-sky Western DNA with the steely violence and unflinching carnage of more contemporary crime. It doesn’t match the finely etched characterizations and contemplative writing of his original screenplay for Hell or High Water, but even if the genre quilting isn’t entirely seamless, it’s a ruggedly entertaining throwback to studio movies of the ’90s about real people navigating hairy life-or-death situations.
The film presents hotshot smokejumper Hannah (Jolie) as very much one of the tough-talking guys, commanding respect while tolerating flirtation from the men on her crew. But a flashback to them parachuting into a woodland inferno shows the pain that feeds her nightmares, when she misread the wind direction and was left to watch helplessly as three boys were consumed by flames. In what seems a quest for atonement by way of self-imposed wilderness exile, she takes a post manning an isolated forest watchtower, in an area not far from the home of Ethan (Jon Bernthal), her ex-boyfriend from the sheriff’s office.
Meanwhile, in upscale suburban Fort Lauderdale, Florida, two men posing as representatives of utilities departments, Jack (Aidan Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult), knock on the door of the District Attorney to check out a possible gas leak. Up the coast in Jacksonville, Owen (Jake Weber), a forensic accountant who uncovered corruption at the highest levels of government, sees a news report about the outcome of that visit to the D.A.’s house. He grabs his preteen son Connor (Finn Little) and gets out of town in a hurry, knowing there’s a target on his back.
Widowed Owen calls for help from his former brother-in-law Ethan, whose wife, Allison (Medina Senghore), runs a survival camp they previously attended. But as father and son head to Montana looking for sanctuary, contract killers Jack and Patrick are one step ahead of them. Their bloody encounter on a quiet stretch of road outside of town leaves Connor traumatized and alone, clutching a written account of his dad’s findings, with instructions to get it to the press.
The hitmen’s boss (Tyler Perry in a glowering cameo) shows up in Montana to let them know he’s unhappy about the loose ends. Describing the situation as a zero-sum game, he instructs them to spare no one, so Jack starts a fire to create a distraction as they hunt down their prey.
Adapted by crime writer Michael Koryta from his novel with Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) and Sheridan, the movie bolts along at a sustained pace, steered by Brian Tyler’s muscular orchestral score. The stirring feel for the grandeur and solitude of frontier country that Sheridan has shown in both his films and his television work on Yellowstone places the characters in an expansive canvas, requiring all of their resources to stay alive. That includes not just Hannah and Connor, who become the emotional center of the thriller as they gain one another’s trust, but also Ethan and heavily pregnant Allison, whose quick-thinking gives the killers an unexpectedly formidable opponent.
The murderous set-pieces are handled with brisk efficiency, particularly once Jack and Patrick close in on Hannah’s watchtower, and the climax puts her and Connor between the killers and the encroaching blaze. That sense of nature as an unstoppable force of destruction is planted early, when Hannah and Connor have to cross an open field during a turbulent electrical storm. But it’s really hammered home in the final stretch, as the ravenous flames close in, devouring everything in their path.
The film was shot in New Mexico, with production designer Neil Spisak creating an artificial forest set with a creek running through it, as well as watchtowers. In handsome widescreen frames and spectacular aerial views, DP Ben Richardson (who shot Wind River and a number of Yellowstone episodes) captures the instantaneous shifts that transform the landscapes from tranquility to menace.
As for character development, there’s a suggestion early on that Jack is the sadistic, seasoned assassin and Patrick his deferential junior. But the potential to take that dynamic someplace interesting is unexplored, and Patrick’s hesitation about killing kids and pregnant women could have used more careful grounding. That said, Gillen and Hoult get the job done.
The good guys are allowed more room to breathe, yielding tender moments between Senghore and Bernthal. In the early scenes, Ethan still shows some residual sexual chemistry with Hannah, and Allison appears secure enough in her marriage to live with it. Australian actor Little, in his first American role, strikes a sympathetic balance between Connor’s stunned vulnerability and his eagerness to appear tougher than his age would imply. Jolie brings her usual lithe physicality to the action scenes and keeps a tight rein on the sentiment elsewhere. After first appraising the kid with cool detachment, Hannah then swiftly leans into her unaccustomed role as protector, finding an avenue for redemption. The well-crafted film’s principal arcs may be largely predictable, but it’s an emotionally satisfying and gripping watch.