For a film so light on character development and heavy on vivid action pieces, Those Who Wish Me Dead takes a long time to get going. When its disparate character threads finally do converge and lead to violent confrontations, Taylor Sheridan’s film veers toward emotional heft without providing the viewer with much opportunity to develop connection to these archetypal characters. That might work better in an action thriller that includes a complex web of intrigue to untangle, but the violence here – at least that which does not consist of the ample threats presented by Mother Nature – stems from an opaque mob conspiracy which only serves as a blood-drenched MacGuffin.

Much like Sheridan’s 2016 screenplay for Hell or High Water and his 2017 directorial debut Wind River, Those Who Wish Me Dead showcases the modern West at its wildest, where both natural threats and foul play intertwine to create an atmosphere that requires a survivalist’s instincts and a perpetual state of high alert. The film wastes its early runtime roving among a dozen or so characters it will introduce, assign a key attribute and then do very little else to flesh out further. The catalyst that will eventually lead this stretch of Montana forest to erupt into an inferno consists of a pair of hitmen (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult), somewhat disgruntled assassins who work for a shadowy organized crime syndicate that wants a couple of nosy government officials dead. They promptly blow up the house of the district attorney and then turn their sights on a forensic accountant (Jake Weber) who uncovered some kind of criminal conspiracy―the details of which the viewers will never learn―and who now must flee with his young son, Connor (Finn Little).

Connor will soon be on his own, running through the woods with little more than the clothes on his back and a valuable folded slip of paper his father told him to give to someone he can trust. Lucky for him, he quickly crosses paths with Hannah (Angelina Jolie), a “smokejumper” who fights forest fires after parachuting down into them. Her lone bit of backstory—other than such reckless daredevil shenanigans as deploying her chute while standing in the bed of a speeding pickup truck—is that she just so happens to be haunted by repetitive flashbacks of a particularly unpredictable fire in which she was unable to save a trio of young boys around Connor’s age. And since Connor is looking for a surrogate parental figure after his run-in with the assassins, it’s kismet.

Along the way there’s a cop, Ethan (Jon Bernthal), and his pregnant wife, Allison (Medina Senghore), a grizzled old sheriff (Boots Southerland) and a half dozen other smokejumpers who play as hard as they work. Tyler Perry even shows up for a single scene as a high-profile middleman between the assassins and mobsters. Ethan and Allison get what should be one of the film’s most emotional moments during its coda, but with the viewer offered so little opportunity for emotional investment, hinging so much poignancy on the mere fact they are a loving, expecting couple in peril feels trite. As for Hannah, she spends much of the film staked out in a watchtower looming high above the treetops, that is when she’s not fleeing it due to lightning strikes or attempting to return to it for refuge from a forest fire.

Those Who Wish Me Dead never fully commits to a tone and Sheridan doesn’t seem to know what kind of movie he wants to make. With the night sky lit up in forest-fire orange and ashes fluttering down like snow, there’s some sumptuous cinematography in certain stretches, and it’s little wonder that the film is being released as a greater number of folks are returning to see movies on the big screen. But the action sequences feel too abrupt and episodic to be pulse-pounding, and there’s virtually no intrigue with a plot in which viewers are kept in the dark. The script is rife with clichés (“it’s a zero-sum game”) and otherwise contrived dialogue (Hannah coaching Connor that “campfires are like catnip for teenage girls”). Those Who Wish Me Dead leans so hard into an emotional angle that simply never resonates that after the fire passes through, there’s little left to salvage.

Summary
Leans so hard into an emotional angle that simply never resonates that after the fire passes through, there’s little left to salvage.
40 %
Lifeless
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