Angelina Jolie is in fine form in the thriller Those Who Wish Me Dead. If only the movie itself was up to her level. Director/co-writer Taylor Sheridan follows up his smart, suspenseful Wind River with this not-very-smart, not-very-suspenseful mash-up of a disaster flick and one of those “screwed-up person becomes protector to endangered kid” stories. There's potential in the premise, yet an abundance of manipulative coincidences and a bizarre choice to leave out one crucial piece of information foil it.
Jolie is Hannah, a smoke jumper who has been relegated to tower duty after a professional breakdown, caused by her inability to save three kids during a forest fire. While out in the wilderness one afternoon, she encounters Connor (Finn Little), a traumatized boy running from the two assassins (Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) who killed his father. Those assassins have figured out that he's somewhere in the woods, so they start a massive fire in an attempt to flush him out. Hannah therefore has to use all her skills to keep the boy safe.
That's the set-up for a decent, if slightly implausible thriller. Those Who Wish Me Dead gets off on the wrong foot by not revealing the true reason why the assassins are pursuing this kid. It's a total MacGuffin. We wait and wait for an explanation that, frustratingly, never arrives. The father (Jake Weber) talks about having done “the right thing” and angering some very bad people. What, specifically, he did is never revealed. Let me repeat that: we are never told what actions the man took to warrant assassins being sent after him and his son. If you want to suck all the tension out of a movie, that's how you do it. Dad gives Connor a list of his “secrets” that we don't see or hear about. Without that critical knowledge, it's unclear why we're supposed to care. Tyler Perry has one scene in the film, as the guy who ordered the hit. His identity is similarly a mystery.
As they say in infomercials, But wait, there's more! Connor and his father have been making their way to Uncle Ethan (Jon Bernthal) who just happens to work for the local sheriff's department. What luck – another competent protector for the kid! Ethan and wife Allison (Medina Senghore) also just happen to run a survival skills training facility, meaning they have lots of weapons and special knowledge that can be used against the assassins. Of course, they just happen to get wrapped up in the situation, and Allison just happens to be pregnant, so that the bad guys can threaten her unborn child.
The best scenes in Those Who Wish Me Dead are the ones between Hannah and Connor. Angelina Jolie is very good as this woman whose inability to deal with a past tragedy has given her something of a death wish. Meeting an imperiled boy provides Hannah with an opportunity to redeem herself. The actress nicely conveys her character's torment and eventual journey to healing. As Connor, Finn Little delivers an effective performance, too. He's very credible as a kid feeling scared and bewildered by the horrific predicament at hand.
Visual effects used to create the engulfing fire are terrific. On that count, Those Who Wish Me Dead does deliver. Watching the movie succeeds in making you think about how terrifying it would be to find yourself surrounded by flames, with no easy way out. The endless parade of contrivances and the lack of resolution regarding the father's deeds deflates most of the drama, though. What should be a thrill-a-minute ride is instead something almost instantly forgettable.
out of four
Those Who Wish Me Dead is rated R for strong violence, and language throughout. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.