Quietly and without fanfare, Taylor Sheridan is becoming an auteur. But even auteurs don't hit a home run every time. To wit: Those Who Wish Me Dead, an unlikely but engaging blend of forest fire peril and hitman danger.
Talented child actor Finn Little plays Connor, an innocent kid who discovers that his father (Jake Weber), a forensic accountant, has some information that could incriminate high-ranking members of Congress. (In a classic MacGuffin move, the story never reveals what this information is.) And so the two flee their Florida home for the woods of Montana, where Connor's uncle (Sheridan regular Jon Bernthal) is a local sheriff. Hot on their trail are two government-sponsored assassins (Aidan Gillen and a cast-against-type Nicholas Hoult) who with their humorless, all-business demeanors personify the phrase "the banality of evil".
Somewhat awkwardly, Angelina Jolie is thrown into the mix as Hannah, a forest firefighter haunted by regret. It takes a while, but as the movie's poster suggests, she will eventually cross paths with young Connor and help save him from the baddies. And yes, an inferno factors into all of this.
Sheridan, formerly a TV actor, has carved out a niche for himself as a teller of thoughtful, convincing law enforcement tales. It began with his original screenplays for Sicario and Hell or High Water. Although he directed a Saw-like gorefest called Vile in 2011, Wind River marked his true progression from writer to writer-director. Those Who Wish Me Dead is his first film working from adapted material, in this case a novel by Michael Koryta, who cowrote the screenplay. I haven't read the novel, but I'll assume it was Koryta who was behind the slightly absurd high concept of having a child running from trained killers in the middle of a burning forest. Take a couple steps back from the film and you'll see how ridiculous it is – frankly below the bar that Sheridan had set for himself in his previous work. But give in and you'll enjoy a fun little B movie with some expertly engineered suspense.
With her willowy frame and supermodel looks, Jolie can't possibly convince as a Montana smoke jumper, but she commits herself to the part and has good chemistry with her young costar. And we're reminded that we're in the 2020s when Bernthal's wife (a star turn for little-known actress Medina Senghore), who is pregnant and black, isn't a victim or a damsel in distress but the cunningest person in Montana. Those Who Wish Me Dead is no classic, but it's decent thriller that alternately struggles against and embraces its silly premise.