There used to be a time when the thriller genre reigned supreme to the point of spawning a myriad of subgenres. The “mystery” thriller, the “action” thriller, the “survival” thriller. Such was the trend that Hollywood relied on in the ‘90s through the early 2000s, one that liberated directors from the constraints of traditional studio moviemaking, AND one that actors both upcoming and veteran flocked to for mainstream success. Take Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in Se7en, or Will Smith and Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State, or a forgotten 1997 wilderness thriller The Edge starring Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins. Studios banked on thrillers before capes and comic books took over, a modern trend that has all but eviscerated the middle-budget movie.
30 years later, the standalone thriller isn’t making a comeback, but a movie like Those Who Wish Me Dead represents a throwback to the lean and mean thrillers that ruled prior. Sure, the film has a case of ‘90s pulp fever and is as straightforward a premise as they come, but with a capable heroine in Angelina Jolie, the backdrop of a brutal American landscape, and Taylor Sheridan’s assured direction, Those Who Wish Me Dead is an efficient survival story about hunters and the haunted.
If you’ve seen the trailer then you’ve seen the movie: Angelina Jolie’s struggling firefighter crosses paths with a boy on the run from shadowy hitmen trying to cover up a far-reaching secret. Chances are you’ve seen a variant of this movie already, albeit with juicier plots and conspiracies.
What separates Taylor Sheridan’s vision – and part of what makes him such an exciting American storyteller – is that he’s not as interested in complicated schemes or shady corporations than he is with repressed characters contending with the great wide outdoors. Sheridan has only one other movie under his belt (Wind River) plus a bevy of writing credits to his name. His characters speak very little, blunt and to the point when they do. Sheridan’s strength as writer is using little to no flashbacks to flesh out his protagonists, choosing instead to unearth the interiority of his characters via the crucible of the present moment. This is what makes survival narratives such ripe storytelling opportunities. There’s little time to worry about the past when you’re running for your life.
If Wind River was Sheridan’s snowy and unforgiving neo-western, then Those Who Wish Me Dead is its fiery counterpart, equally unforgiving, but also Sheridan’s most commercial feature to date. Jolie’s Hannah Faber is a haunted smokejumper (parachuting firefighter) who blames herself for a tragic forest fire that took the lives of three teenagers. She spends her days posted in a watchtower where there isn’t much to do except relive the trauma and engage in suicidal ideation.
Newcomer Finn Little as Connor is just a kid worrying about kid things when his father Owen becomes the target of two obscure and resourceful hitmen. Sheridan doesn’t care about the circumstances let alone specifics that put Owen in their crosshairs. It’s merely a plot point forcing father and son to give up their digital devices and retreat into the wilderness. (Danger, or a much-needed vacation? 🤔)
Hannah and Connor don’t meet until halfway through the movie. This is their trial by fire – one seeking redemption, the other coming of age. Connor will have to grow up without a father, just as Hannah will have to get off her sorry ass if they are to survive the next obstacle, whether it be bullets, lightning, or
a gender reveal party wildfire.
Consider the movie (or movies) this could have been. Another action vehicle starring Liam Neeson or Mel Gibson (Edge of Darkness, anyone?); a horror thriller with Hannah and Connor on the run from two psychotic killers, or perhaps just a more stylized version of the same story with sublimely staged shootouts and fisticuffs to boot. But Sheridan cares remarkably less about the violence people are capable of than what violence does to people like a natural disaster.
An example I keep going back to is the border confrontation in Sicario, which Sheridan wrote. The scene isn’t scripted as a spectacle-driven set-piece with car flips and explosions like something out of Mission Impossible III. Instead, the scene unfolds with the coldness and swiftness of a gangland execution. Violence isn’t the payoff, but a brutal tool of immersion dousing us in a stark, remorseless world.
It’s not how violently Connor’s father dies that’s important to the story, but what becomes of Connor without a father to guide him. Nor is it important how terribly those teenagers perished in the fire that broke Hannah, but how such an event inevitably hardens her conviction. Violence, under Sheridan’s pen, is a punctuation mark. It’s brief, calculating, eviscerating— changing a character’s worldview in that instant.
Sheridan does away with sophisticated plots or hyper stylizations of any kind. He keys in on his characters at their most primal. Who runs, who stands up to fight, and their relationship to nature (or lack thereof) and what this says about them… or what it might say about us.
In Wind River (spoilers), it’s the oil rig security douchebags whom treat the land and Native American women like things that are rightfully theirs, and thus eventually get what’s coming to them. As you can expect, the fates of Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult’s pair of cold-blooded assassins won’t end well either. No matter how relentless they are, the terrain doles out its own brand of justice.
Jolie has played haunted characters before and a supporting Jon Bernthal is in his element as the strait-laced sheriff, but the joy is seeing these actors play convincing everyday people, not gung-ho action stars and superheroes. I say this knowing full well that Bernthal was The Punisher, Hoult portrayed Beast in X-Men, and Jolie herself (once a Tomb Raider) will star in Marvel’s upcoming Eternals. The subversion that happens with each actor, nonetheless, is subtly compelling. Even the sheriff’s pregnant wife Allison, who’s initially setup as a potential victim in the firefight, winds up playing a far meatier role. “I hate this fucking place,” a character says during a climactic confrontation, and Allison replies, “It hates you back.”
No corner of America hasn’t been explored, unturned, or paved over. There’s no new frontier pointing to a brave new world anymore. Sheridan, then, suggests that the only remaining American frontier exists within the individual and the grand canyon of possibilities yet to be explored in ourselves.
Those Who Wish Me Dead may not scream big screen cinema, but as we make our way back to the multiplex, we are about to get overloaded with all the big budget tentpoles that Hollywood has been waiting to dump on us for over a year. (No complaints here because my body is READY.) Sheridan’s film is a reassuring sign of life that there’s both a place and audience for the middle-budget movie that’s rapidly vanishing in the heyday of franchise filmmaking. That alone is quietly redeeming.