' ' Cinema Romantico: Those Who Wish Me Dead

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Those Who Wish Me Dead

Angelina Jolie is the star of “Those Who Wish Me Dead”, both on the poster and in the finished product, but Taylor Sheridan’s movie, based on Michael Koryta’s book, proves just as much of an ensemble piece. The splintered opening images of firefighters parachuting through the sky and into a forest blaze foreshadow an opening of narrative fragments, cutting back and forth between four different stories. Two assassins, Jack (Aidan Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult), pursue forensic accountant Owen (Jake Weber) and his son Connor (Finn Little) to Montana, the latter hoping to hide out with Owen’s brother-in-law, Ethan (Jon Bernthal), a deputy sheriff whose pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore) runs a survival school. Meanwhile, Hannah Faber (Jolie), a smokejumper still traumatized from three children dying in a forest fire, finds herself demoted to a lonely fire tower. That’s a lot of plot, I know, but this informational jumble only underlines the impressiveness of Sheridan’s storytelling efficiency. He eschews exposition, never even stopping to lay out precisely why these assassins want Owen dead, content his job title is indication enough, while character is achieved predominantly through behavior and decision-making, like Hannah’s death wish conveyed in her recklessly parachuting out the back of a pickup truck, and the big picture stuff is never hammered home, rising instead from images. 

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” even knowingly accounts for the kind of little narrative loopholes that preoccupy a certain sort of viewer. If you wonder why the bad men behind the scenes do not employ two teams of assassins to off the forensic accountant and the district attorney at the same time, rather than providing Owen a helpful window to flee, well, Jack wonders that too. “There should have been two teams,” he says at least twice, Gillen’s churlish line reading suggesting assassins as frustrated bureaucrats too. Jack and Patrick are not empathetic, mind you, but still fascinating to watch, like if the hitman duo of “Michael Clayton” had been more prominent, communicating with a lived-in shorthand evinced in Gillen and Hoult’s convincing crackerjack chemistry. Their tacit high tech professionalism, meanwhile, is juxtaposed not only against the survival instincts of their foes but nature itself, starkly rendered in the shots of these two men in black suits standing in front of a vivid wildfire. That blaze, in fact, is deliberately set by Jack. Though he gets a couple lines about hating this place, these are made superfluous by the way Gillen’s lips contort into a semi-grin while watching the fire catch, evoking that hatred on its own, a genuinely frightening sequence of man’s propensity for destruction. 

This forest fire works as an elaborate distraction for the hitmen, who manage to intercept Owen on a highway and kill him but are then forced to pursue Connor, carrying crucial evidence of the MacGuffin, into the wilderness where he comes under the protection of Hannah. This fire also ups the action movie ante, two crises for the price of one, with the armed bad men behind Hannah and Connor and the out-of-control blaze in front of them, boxed in and adapting to the ever-changing danger. That they can’t communicate with the outside world, including Ethan, eventually conscripted as Jack and Patrick’s guide, ties back to a lightning strike on Hannah’s fire tower. Contrived, perhaps, but also affirmation of “Those Who Wish Me Dead’s” delightful tendency to evince such contrivances with playful melodrama. 

If I could have gone for a few more scenes of Allison’s survival school, perhaps utilized for some corny Roland Emmerich-ish setups and payoffs, Allison at least gets her own consequential moment, not pregnant just in the name of narrative peril, a la “Without Remorse”, but allowed her own heroic moments. Aerial shots of the wide open landscape and Owen’s brief mention of Lewis and Clark suggest “Those Who Wish Me Dead” as a sort of neo-western, but this idea truly comes alive in the sequence where Allison rides off into the ash-soaked night astride a horse to save her man rather than him saving her, suggesting how “Those Who Wish Me Dead” gleefully rewrites the rules. Indeed, this could have been Senghore’s movie, so rousingly does she play this one-woman rescue operation, as easily as it could have been Jolie’s, though it is Jolie’s movie too, since this is the sort of movie she’s born to make and the kind I hope she makes more of.

While an early scene in which she holds comic, unruly court with a gaggle of other smokejumpers suggests another movie entirely, demonstrating how gracefully Jolie can control the camera, medium close-ups rendered as works of movie star magnetism art, her character and performance prove just a bit more emotionally resonant. True, when Connor encounters Hannah deep in the Montana wilderness, it is the obvious narrative moment of righting a past wrong, giving a woman who wants to die a reason to live. But Jolie gives the moment a nice ring nonetheless, almost like she, Hannah, can’t quite believe what she’s seeing, like the cosmos is communicating to her, and the rapport these two actors develop lift their relationship into something more than two people on one end of a game of cat and mouse. Sheridan gives space to the character of Connor, truly letting him work through his trauma, while Jolie’s patented stillness becomes the perfect counterpoint, never rushing him. And when Connor asks, at his father’s behest, if she’s someone he can trust, well, that’s why you cast Jolie. She says she is, of course, she has to, but she also doesn’t. That shot of Jolie in response says it all. 

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