What I do have is a particular set of skills; skills that have no bearing whatsoever on the plot of this movie.
This was the modified Liam Neeson trailer line I had echoing around my head throughout my viewing of Those Who Wish Me Dead, the new Taylor Sheridan movie on HBO Max about a pair of hitmen, a scared boy, and a smoke jumper played by Angelina Jolie. It’s a film that seems to go to great pains describing the very specific niche that each character occupies, carefully crafted anecdotes defining attributes ultimately signifying nothing. Detailed information is given, then discarded. It’s almost an anti-movie.
The first characters we meet are the two hitmen, played by Aiden Gillen, formerly Little Finger from Game Of Thrones, and Nicolas Hoult, the one-time boy from About A Boy, now a fully-grown man. They pose as firemen investigating a gas leak in order to infiltrate a Florida mansion. They kill the residents, blow the whole thing up on the way out, and barely flinch while walking away from the massive explosion. The scene certainly makes an impression.
The house turns out to belong to a DA, and seeing the news of his death on TV, a forensic accountant played by Jake Weber takes it as his cue to flee, along with his curly-haired pre-teen son, played by Finn Little. Weber’s character explains that he discovered aberration in someone’s books, the implications of which go all the way to the top. The pair head to the woods of Montana, where the accountant’s brother, played by Jon Bernthal, works as a Sheriff. Meanwhile, Little Finger and About A Man are already hot on the accountant’s trail.
In these same woods lives Hannah, a daredevil smoke jumper played by Angelina Jolie, possibly the least-convincing casting choice imaginable. Angelina Jolie is one of the most elegant-looking humans alive but watching her run is like watching Elaine Benes dance. When we meet her, Hannah is getting drunk with her smoke-jumper pals, who fight fires by jumping out of planes, digging ditches, and swinging axes. This fun-loving (but ultimately serious) brotherhood of the uniformed is something we normally Peter Berg explore, in movies like Patriots Day and Lone Survivor. Those Who Wish Me Dead, which also has the shark-eyed criminals and frontier setting seen in Taylor Sheridan movies like Wind River and Hell Or High Water, feels a little like Berg and Sheridan tried to shout a movie at each other across a crowded bar.
Hannah pulls some stunt involving a pick-up truck and a parachute, and gets demoted down, or rather demoted up, to a remote fire tower in the woods. She’ll spend the entire summer all alone in this cinematic locale, scanning the horizon for smoke — the perfect place to reflect on the deadly fire she still blames herself for. When a thunderstorm arrives suddenly, it’s almost as if the lightning has it in for her, and she’s forced to flee the tower down a rope, her well-established parachute skills curiously moot. It’s one of two scenes in which lightning seems to attack Hannah with peculiar malice, as if when the accountant told his son that “this thing goes all the way to the top,” he actually meant upwards, towards the cumulonimbus clouds themselves.
With Hannah now on the ground, she meets the accountant’s boy and together they hatch a scheme to get to Sheriff Jon Bernthal’s house for safety, with the hitmen hot on their trail. The Sheriff’s wife, see, runs a survival school. The wife is pregnant and black (played by Medina Senghore), which felt like quick way for the movie to signal “it’s okay to root for these people” rather than assume that they belong to some kind of white separatist militia. Angelina Jolie’s character, meanwhile, is the Sheriff’s ex-girlfriend for some reason. Meanwhile, the hitmen have started a fire in the same forest, intended as some kind of distraction.
Thus we have an accountant’s boy, a smoke jumper looking for redemption, a long-suffering Sheriff, a survivalist, and two firemen-impersonating hitmen colliding in a burning forest. The rigorously explained personality attributes of all these separate characters seem like they should come into play in the story somehow, because that’s how stories generally work. Instead, everything we know about them gradually becomes irrelevant. The fake firemen start a fire that the real fire lady doesn’t put out (or even predict), the Sheriff solves no crimes, the survival lady spends no time in the wilderness, and the hitmen seem to constantly forget that they have guns. Even the lightning itself is divorced from what you’d imagine would be its true purpose. It shows up twice to try to kill Angelina Jolie (isn’t there an old saying about lightning striking twice?) but in the end the forest fire is ignited by a couple of road flares.
This all feels a bit like the dramatic equivalent of one of those anti-joke jokes that deliberately avoid the punchline. The only clue to who the hitmen work for or what they’re covering up is a brief appearance by some kind of higher-up functionary played by Tyler Perry, which is sort of like Keyser Soze being revealed as Larry The Cable Guy. Those Who Wish Me dead would be genius if this were deliberate. I’m not sure it is, but it is sort of fascinating.
Taylor Sheridan is an acclaimed screenwriter who even received an Oscar nomination, for his second produced screenplay, Hell Or High Water. This year he’s the credited screenwriter of two novel adaptations, this and last month’s Without Remorse, which both feel more like the scene of development crimes than coherent movies in their own right. The personalities that must’ve collided and clashed behind the scenes to produce this mess must be at least as interesting as the ones on screen.