“Those Who Wish Me Dead” Is an Entertaining Yet Frustrating Popcorn Movie

But I’m glad it exists

When I learned about Those Who Wish Me Dead, I was excited. With Taylor Sheridan of Hell or High Water and Wind River, Angelina Jolie, and Jon Bernthal involved, along with an intriguing survival premise, this sounded promising. I’m a fan of the outdoor survival genre, and I like Westerns, so I was looking forward to this one.

After watching it, I’m left thinking that it was a solid and watchable movie but fell short of its potential to be great.

I appreciated that there were two substantial parts for women. There was Hannah (Angelina Jolie), a smokejumper grappling with guilt about the deaths of three boys on a firefighting mission that she led, and Allison (Medina Senghore), a wilderness survival instructor and the wife of Ethan, a deputy sheriff (Jon Bernthal). I also enjoyed delving into the culture of smokejumpers and wildland firefighting, although I wish we had gotten to learn more about it.

Jolie makes the most of the screen time she has, showing Hannah as a flawed, caring person searching for redemption. Hannah seems to have calm and stillness in a crisis, which makes sense since she’s a firefighter with experience in situations where panic could be deadly.

Finn Little as Connor, the boy who is being chased by two hitmen, stands out for his committed, naturalistic acting. He brings realism and emotion to his scenes, especially the ones with Jolie.

Jon Bernthal is always a charismatic presence. I was frustrated, though, that the reasoning behind some of his character’s survival choices are left unclear. Somehow, I didn’t get to know the characters very well overall. I wished that the editing had cut down on certain scenes — did we need to see hitmen walk off a plane and get into an SUV? — in order to leave us room for more character development. The runtime of the movie is a quick 1 hour 40 minutes, so every moment is important.

We understand that Hannah must have PTSD, but we often cut away from her, back to the hitmen. I wish we had explored her character’s past more. I also would have liked to see more of her outdoor survival skills. There is some of that, in her reading of the weather and terrain, but not enough.

We see the movie’s two hitmen chasing and murdering people, but their actions seem bad-guy generic. I thought of Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men and how everything he did, from his walk, to the way he talked, to his brutal methods of killing, told us what a smart, ruthless, and nihilistic assassin he was. The hitmen in Those Who Wish Me Dead aren’t developed beyond that they are evil and they have guns. More characterization would have helped us feel more suspense. In No Country, Chigurh was a menacing force of nature in himself, but the two hitmen here just seemed to be mean and often get lucky enough to run into their quarry. How do they feel about each other? Are they friends or enemies? Which one of them is in charge? We don’t know.

I was baffled by some of the characters’ choices. I wondered whether there was more information in the book (which served as the source material) that would help the movie’s plot make more sense. For instance, in the beginning of the movie, the boy’s father has information about a crime, and he knows that he and his son are in mortal danger. He wants to get the information to reporters. In a dire situation, he gives the information to his son — on a folded square of paper — to somehow take to the press. Why didn’t the father just call the press himself to begin with? Then there would have been no movie, I guess.

A scene that especially didn’t make sense to me is one where Hannah and Connor are caught in a clearing during a lightning storm. Instead of heading for the trees to seek at least some type of shelter, she decides that they should alternate crouching and sprinting across an open field. They end up dodging lightning bolts. Maybe there was some logic behind the choice — if you know, let me know.

The New Mexico scenery was lovely. A lot of the $20 million budget must have gone into showing us a scary, fast-moving wildfire rolling like a tidal wave across the landscape. I enjoyed the spectacle, whether or not it was far-fetched.

There’s something here: the portrayal of a distinct subculture of firefighters, the survival elements, Angelia Jolie in an action movie, but something is lacking to take it from good to great. It stayed on the surface when it could have gone deeper. It was a perfectly watchable movie. I just wish it had been something more.

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