The “Me” in “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is 12-year-old Connor Casserly (Finn Little), who’s been riding in the passenger seat of his father’s car when a pair of trained assassins pop up along the forest road and perforate the windshield with bullets. The car smashes through the guardrail and plows down the slope, hitting a tree. Dying Dad (Jake Weber) orders his son to get out and find someone he can trust (Angelina Jolie plays Someone He Can Trust), and Connor goes scrambling off into the woods as the two men come back to finish the job. Except the job — snuffing any and everyone who might know something about the crime they’re trying to cover up — is far from done.
The killers now turn their attention to Connor, and they’re ruthless enough to start a forest fire to cover their tracks (and maybe barbecue the boy in the process). That’s not even the first “don’t try this at home” stunt pulled in a movie packed with original set-pieces: parachuting out the back of a speeding pickup truck, jumping from the deck of a 50-foot forest watchtower, trying to outsmart a lightning storm in an open field. All three of those feats are performed by Jolie, who plays mama bear to Connor’s endangered cub, and she looks confident enough doing it that there will be copycats. Ideally, her attitude will inspire more than her actions.
Now, Connor may be just a kid, but this is no kids movie.
As directed by Taylor Sheridan, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” offers a much bigger sandbox for the gifted actor-turned-action maven; his scripts for “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water” have launched him to the front of a genre dominated by CG robots, superheroes and other IP once associated with Saturday-morning cartoons. Such movies are plenty popular, but this one marks a welcome departure — one intended for grown-ups seeking more “realistic” diversion — without shortchanging audiences when it comes to spectacle or sound. Audiences shortchange themselves by watching on HBO Max, since the ear-bleeding Atmos mix is as much a reason to see this on the big screen as the hell-on-earth visuals.
Technically, the template for “Those Who Wish Me Dead” was a pulpy page-turner of the same name by Michael Koryta, who wrote an early draft of the script, though Sheridan has changed so much that the finished product can no longer be thought of as an adaptation. Those who care to spot all the differences can read the book, but take it from me, the most significant is casting — and casting, as many a director will tell you, is half the job.
Sheridan makes two bull’s-eye choices in that department: choosing Jolie to play death-wish smokejumper (those are the pros who parachute into a raging wildfire) Hannah Faber and square-jawed Jon Bernthal (who looks more like Fred Ward with every role) as local sheriff Ethan Sawyer.
Nearly all the other leads are liable to leave audiences scratching their heads, starting with Little, who’s two years younger than the boy in the book. At 14, he’s old enough to enroll in and benefit from the wilderness survival camp Ethan and his pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore) run in off-the-grid Soda Butte, Mont. But at 12, he might as well be Bambi, wobbling forth on rickety legs after hunters shoot and kill his parents. Hard to say whose idea it was to age him down, though the choice seems right on brand for Jolie, who, in the “Maleficent” sequel and in real life, plays adoptive mother to orphans of all kinds.
Here, she’s as committed to keeping Connor alive as those two hired guns are to wishing him dead. For some reason, Sheridan tapped Tyler Perry as the shady character who ordered the hit (he has just one scene, and it makes no sense), but that’s not nearly as strange as picking Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult to play the Blackwell brothers, Jack and Patrick. These two look nothing like siblings — or killers, for that matter. But maybe that’s the point. When they turn up on your doorstep, they seem friendly enough, like a pair of amiable Mormon evangelists. As they leave the scene, who would suspect that they’d just executed everyone inside?
Sheridan spares audiences that bloodbath, focusing instead on the fireball that erupts behind Jack and Patrick’s backs in the opening scene. Compared with the intensity of the violence in “Wind River” (Sheridan’s “debut,” since no one’s counting “Vile,” not even its credited director) and the aforementioned screenplays, the confrontations here aren’t nearly as frightening. That’s because nature makes a far more compelling adversary. We’ve seen too many movies in which assassins stalk witnesses, whereas it’s a lot more frightening when one comes face-to-flame with a raging forest fire.
It’s a big job, marshaling a CG inferno, and Sheridan proves reasonably adept at orchestrating such elemental suspense, although Connor’s near-helplessness works against the film. He’s not the protagonist so much as baggage for Jolie’s character to carry, and her backstory — which involves flashes of an earlier fire, when a colleague and three kids burned to death before her eyes — makes rude intrusions into the story at hand. Surely one needn’t have witnessed such horrors in order to protect a small child from a pair of sociopaths, and the resulting “redemption” feels unnecessary — the kind of textbook screenwriting stunt that’s beneath Sheridan’s terse, immersive style.
He’s good at writing characters who, once motivated, power forward with all the momentum and force of a freight train. Plus, he knows the territory where the movie takes place (though shot mostly in New Mexico, it’s set a stone’s throw from “Yellowstone,” the contemporary Western that Sheridan co-created for TV). But wildfires have become so insanely damaging in recent years that it’s hard to focus on a handful of souls when we know just how hard these blazes can be to contain.
It takes a singularly evil kind of villain to spark such a calamity as a mere diversion (that’s Jack’s plan: to distract the people of Soda Butte while he and Patrick hunt the kid) and a twisted kind of Hollywood logic to consider the problem solved once Hannah and the kid are safe. “Overkill” — that’s the word for it, and it must be one whopper of a conspiracy to justify the firebombing of one home and the incineration of countless acres to cover up whatever malfeasance Connor’s dad was prepared to report. The idea may be outrageous, but Sheridan’s commitment makes the whole thing work. He’ll torch half a state for our entertainment, and that’s nothing if not original.