Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Between fire and killers

Taylor Sheridan’s new film “Those Who Wish Me Dead”, which is released today in South Korean theaters before released in US on next Friday, literally burns slowly at first then blazes toward its expected finale. Although this is basically a run-of-the-mill chase story, it thankfully pays some attention to building up its plot and characters first, and the overall result is a fairly good thriller flick which is also competent enough to hold our attention to the end.

During its first act, the movie patiently establishes the current status of a female forest service firefighter named Hannah Faber (Angelina Jolie). Although she seems to be ready for another task when we see her spending some time with her male colleagues, she has still not fully recovered from the trauma caused by a very unfortunate incident during her previous mission, and she does not complain much about being assigned alone to a fire tower located in the middle of her forest region in Montana. Ethan Saywer (Jon Bernthal), a local sheriff who was incidentally quite close to her in the past, shows some sympathy to her when they come across each other due to her certain impulsive illegal act, but that is the last thing she wants right now, and we soon see her beginning her first day at the aforementioned fire tower.

It looks like nothing much will happen around the fire tower during Hannah’s stay, but, of course, a trouble is already heading toward her. In Florida, a guy who happens to be Ethan’s brother-in-law hurriedly runs away along with his little son Connor (Finn Little) shortly after seeing a TV news about an ‘accident’ which killed the district attorney and his family, and he later explains to his son a bit on what is going on. While working for that dead district attorney, he discovered a massive case of corruption which will ruin some powerful people up there in the US government, and there is no one to trust for them except Ethan, who can probably hide him and his son for a while before he can disclose a crucial piece of information on that corruption case in public.

Not so surprisingly, a couple of killers are already pursuing them, and it does not take much time for them in tracking down their main target. As a matter of fact, these two killers are already waiting for the main target and his son when they are almost near to Ethan’s residence, though the situation becomes more messier than expected. The killers succeeded in eliminating their main target, but Connor manages to escape from the spot as his father wanted before his eventual death, and the killers are subsequently ordered to eliminate any loose end besides Connor.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Connor later comes across Hannah, who, right from their accidental encounter in the forest, instantly senses that he really needs help. Still quite traumatized by what he witnessed, Connor is not so willing to trust Hannah, but he has no choice but to depend on her because he must survive and then deliver to any TV reporter a certain stuff entrusted to him before his father’s death.

Meanwhile, the killers are quite determined to accomplish their task by any means necessary. Once they discern that their actions will definitely draw the attention of the local police, they deliberately cause a wild fire for distracting the local police, and that wild fire is quickly spread all over the forest in addition to endangering Connor and Hannah.

Now you may already guess where the story and characters are heading, but the screenplay by Sheridan and his co-writers Michael Koryta and Charles Leavitt, which is based on the novel of the same name written by Koryta, throws some surprises for us while efficiently dialing up the level of suspense. While the killers in the story are certainly wily and ruthless as expected, Hannah and the few other main characters standing on their way are equally smart and resourceful, and I was glad to see that a seemingly functional supporting character turns out to be more active and courageous than I thought at first.

The movie also works as an interesting transition point for Sheridan, who previously wrote the screenplay for “Sicario” (2015) and “Hell or High Water” (2016) before making a directorial debut with “Wind River” (2017). While “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water” were your average gritty macho crime dramas, Sheridan paid more attention to female characters in “Wind River” as reflected by Elizabeth Olsen’s strong lead performance next to Jeremy Renner’s in that film, and now he lets a female character fully take the center stage here in this film. Thanks to another good performance from Angelina Jolie, Hannah comes to us a generic but engaging heroine to watch, and Jolie and young actor Finn Little are convincing in the quick development of their characters’ emotional bond along the story.

In case of the other main cast members in the film, they dutifully fill their respective spots as required. While Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen bring some depth and menace to their villainous characters, Jon Bernthal and Medina Senghore are also well-cast in their substantial supporting roles, and you may be a bit amused by the brief appearance of Tyler Perry, who is more believably serious than whatever he did in “Alex Cross” (2012).

Overall, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” will not surprise you much if you are familiar with its genre territory, but it is still a competent piece of work while also being supported well by Jolie’s diligent effort. Although it has been more than 20 years since she drew my attention for the first time via her feisty Oscar-winning supporting turn in “Girl, Interrupted” (1999), Jolie has not lost any of her talent and presence yet, and I hope she will keep going for many years to come.

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