On paper, the adaptation of Michael Koryta’s 2014 novel Those Who Wish Me Dead sounds like an absolute cinematic slam dunk. It has Hell or High Water writer Taylor Sheridan as one of the screenwriters on the adaption, as well at the helm. Its cast boasts Angelina Jolie, Jon Bernthal, Aidan Gillen, and Nicholas Hoult, with each of their respective strengths enhancing the dramatic elements of the human vs human vs nature aspects of the narrative. There’s political intrigue, a redemption arc, and the promise of family. By all accounts, Those Who Wish Me Dead contains all the hallmarks of a strong cinematic adventure by way of Shooter (2007) meets Dante’s Peak (1997). Sadly, despite all this, the end result is a film whose electric end doesn’t make up for the slog it takes to get there.
In the forest of Montana, fire jumper Hannah (Jolie) contends daily with the spiritual remains of a perceived failure that cost the lives of her team and civilians during a blaze. Encouraged by her teammates’ bravado, she put on a brave face, but those who know her best, like ex-boyfriend and member of the local Sherriff’s department Ethan (Berthnal), recognize that the losses haunt her daily. One day while solo-manning a fire tower, she comes across a lost boy, Connor (Finn Little), bloodied and scared, and offers him shelter. But the boy needs more than shelter as two men are on the hunt for him and will kill anyone who gets in their way.
Based on the above summary, Those Who Wish Me Dead should be a straight-focused thriller. The execution of it, however, becomes so convoluted that getting any kind of emotional toe-hold is difficult. The film starts with a flashback of Hannah’s trauma, as she dreams of the fire that left her feeling impotent and afraid. Then it cuts to Gillen and Hoult, before cutting to introduce Little’s Connor and Jake Weber (Midway), who plays Connor’s father, before cutting back to Hannah where we meet Bernthal’s Ethan. The back and forth of it all sets the stage for the players and establishes the collision course that everyone is on, but the tonal discrepancy in the scenes involving Hannah is so different that any intrigue is gone, requiring it to ramp back up when back on the others. It’s not that Hannah’s story isn’t interesting as a redemption tale, it’s that her story feels less interesting after spending so much time focused on why Connor and his father are on the run, especially because the film makes it clear that while she’s emotionally raw and very much in need of some form of counseling, she’s still incredibly capable. There’s no doubt that she has the skillset to get Connor to safety, even if she’s up against highly-trained killers. Thus, any tension as to whether she can prevent another tragedy is less up in the air, especially when the fire that inevitably gets started and overtakes where Hannah and Connor are located, because she very much knows what she’s doing. One version of interpretation of her character is that she lacks the confidence to do her job because she sees the incident as a failing of her abilities versus the unpredictability of nature. Once Connor comes under her care, though, any doubt she struggled with is so clearly gone that the only tension comes from whether or not she’ll find a way to outwit her opposition.
Strangely, the more interesting element of the entire picture is the one given the most time and least information: the killer duo of Gillen and Hoult. We know very little about the two other than a few guesses including current or former military working for either a secret cabal within the government or a wealthy private citizen. In the grand scheme of the story, one of survival and redemption, the details don’t matter, but even Jack Reacher, itself a survival thriller of a different sort, gave the audience information to help develop the mystery and more clearly identify the threat. Instead, we are simply offered some excellent screenwork from Gillen and Hoult to the point that their scenes became things you wanted more of, even if it meant terrible violence. Some of this is due to the physical performance from Gillen who conveyed a certain exhaustion from the type of work he’s doing which contrasted nicely with Hoult’s more youthful, less weighted by his actions presentation. Evidentially the novel is about 300 pages and very rarely are adaptations a 1:1 presentation, but it would be difficult to conceive of a novel which also kept its secrets so close that it would give the idea of them, via the two killers, tons of focus without ever revealing greater or significant details.
Speculation is little more than guesswork, so I won’t get into why I think the home release features are minimal. Rather, it’s important to note that the digital and Blu-ray editions only include a 14-minute “Making Of” featurette, while the DVD contains only a “First Look” featurette. However, if you did enjoy Those Who Wish Me Dead or have interest in the making of the film, the “Making Of” featurette has a couple of really interesting tidbits. For instance, the story is set primarily in Montana, but they were unable to get permission to shoot there and moved production to New Mexico. This required working in higher elevations in order to find comparable natural environments. In order to create a forest fire, something they couldn’t do in an actual New Mexico forest, they build one on the studio lot using trees declared safe for removal from the Forestry Service, enabling them to create a more realistic environment for the actors to interact while minimizing the global environmental impact. Similarly, they used as many physical elements as possible so that the film would feel as real as possible, only using CG to apply touch-ups. As the review copy sent by WB Home Entertainment didn’t include a DVD, I can’t offer any length or thoughts on the “First Look” featurette.
Considering the quality of the cast and the captivating concept, it’s a great shame that the overall film is largely forgettable. There’s little in the way of spectacle to induce awe, the structure of the film is edited awkwardly at the start so that momentum is hard to maintain, and so much weight is placed on the secrets at risk, yet we never discover what they are. This may play better in the novel, but there’s not enough we’re given to generate interest beyond watching some of today’s best actors at work. Gillen and Hoult have fantastic chemistry together, as do Jolie and Bernthal in the few scenes they share. Little certainly holds his own, offering a performance that doesn’t overly dramatize or belittle a boy in need, but shows what even the youngest of us can endure in trying times. It’s just an overall shame that once seen, there’s not enough that yearns to be revisited.
Those Who Wish Me Dead Blu-ray Special Features:
- Making Those Who Wish Me Dead (14:29)
Those Who Wish Me Dead DVD Special Features:
- Those Who Wish Me Dead First Look
Available for premium digital ownership July 2nd, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD August 3rd, 2021.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.