Dir: Taylor Sheridan. Starring: Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Nicholas Hoult, Aidan Gillen, Jake Weber, Medina Senghore, Jon Bernthal. Cert 15, 100 mins
Angelina Jolie’s bare-knuckled performance in Those Who Wish Me Dead easily outclasses the film that contains it. The survival drama, in which she plays a smokejumper attempting to curb the spread of forest fires, has been advertised as a comeback of sorts. That’s not quite true – Jolie’s spent the last decade directing and working on more family-oriented fare, such as Maleficent and last year’s The One and Only Ivan – but here, she returns in all her film star regalia.
Jolie has the languid but powerful repose of a lion overseeing its pride. She is commanding without ever coming off as emotionless. It’s just a shame that Those Who Wish Me Dead – shot with absolute solemnity but profoundly silly at its core – is the one to welcome her back. It should have been the heavily delayed and undoubtedly more impressive Eternals, directed by Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is directed and co-written by Taylor Sheridan, best known for 2016’s ruggedly folkloric Hell or High Water. His latest certainly shares the same aesthetics – in awe of nature’s indiscriminate brutality, just as the biting cold closed in on his characters in 2017’s Wind River.
The film opens with Hannah, in a flashback, at the centre of a raging forest fire. The speed at which it’s spreading is frightening, the flames licking up towards the sky like spiked tongues. Her team is surrounded and a man starts to burn, his panicked contortions mimicking a strange dance. Hannah can see three young boys, somewhere in the distance. There’s no saving them now. The camera cuts to Jolie, and you can see the trauma start to cling to her skin.
What happens next immediately undercuts all that we’ve just seen – there is another fire, even deadlier in size, but it’s not started by lightning, drought, or ignorant campers. It’s the work of two hitmen (Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen), attempting to erase all evidence of their crimes and entrap the 12-year-old son (Finn Little’s Connor) of one of their targets (Jake Weber). There’s no mystery to be solved – more accurately, the film has no interest in solving mysteries. Sheridan, alongside his co-writers Michael Koryta and Charles Leavitt, has adapted Koryta’s book of the same name so that the focus is pulled away from Connor and the main thrust of the assassination story.
Instead, Sheridan simply has his cast – and it’s a great cast, with Jon Bernthal and Medina Senghore playing a couple who also work for the national park – run around the woods and point guns at each other. Jolie gets to play the flinty thrillseeker who slowly softens and opens up emotionally when she’s put in charge of the boy’s wellbeing. But the actor never presents Hannah’s journey in the obvious ways – acknowledging that barriers are taken down brick by brick. It’s a level of nuance that seems out of place for a film where she’s getting chased by pyromaniac assassins.