Every student who’s ever taken a creative writing course has heard the phrases “man versus man” and “man versus nature,” but one imagines filmmaker Taylor Sheridan circling them both in his notebook and jotting, “YES. THIS.” in the margin. His work as writer and/or director of films like “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River,” as well as the TV show “Yellowstone,” often sets his characters against nature, both in the compositional and confrontational sense.
Sheridan’s very much in his wheelhouse in “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” a tale of a firefighter seeking redemption, a sheriff and his wife fighting for survival, and a young witness trying to elude his captors, and all of them coping with a massive forest fire in Big Sky country. The stakes are high and the danger is always imminent in this straightforward thriller; it never bends the rules of the genre, but it certainly delivers on what it promises.
Angelina Jolie stars as Hannah, a hard-partying Montana forest-fire-fighter whose just-one-of-the-guys demeanor hides the fact that she’s haunted by a mission gone wrong, where the wind changed direction and lives were lost despite her best efforts. The only person to see through the façade to her vulnerability is local sheriff Ethan (Jon Bernthal).
Meanwhile, in Florida, coolly efficient assassins Jack (Aiden Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) blow up a DA’s house and make it look like an accident. Forensic accountant Mr. Casserly (Jake Weber, “Midway”) realizes he’s going to be the killers’ next target, so he takes off with son Connor (Finn Little, “Reckoning”) to hide out with Ethan and his wife Allison (Medina Senghore, “Happy!”), who’s six-months pregnant. The bad guys figure out the Casserlys’ plan and catch up to them, leaving a now-orphaned Connor to run off into the Montana woods to find help.
Connor and Hannah have to cope with the forces of nature — a lightning strike takes out all the radios and other electronic equipment in her fire observation tower, so they can’t call for help — and everyone in this bucolic area of Montana must gear up for battle with the evil interlopers, who aren’t above torturing Allison (who’s not going to be easily victimized by anyone) or even setting the forest on fire in their quest for young Connor.
(Jack and Patrick’s even scarier boss is played by Tyler Perry in one intense scene, adding to the filmmaker’s gallery of scene-stealing appearances in other directors’ movies.)
The script by Sheridan and Michael Koryta and Charles Leavitt (based on Koryta’s novel) skillfully lays out the characters and relationships before sending everyone into fight-or-flight mode against a night sky that’s become more and more filled with ashes. (One does wonder why none of Hannah’s many fellow firefighters, introduced early in the film, immediately show up when the fire starts raging.) Cinematographer Ben Richardson (“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Mare of Easttown”) puts in a lot of effort to create context for the action, both in the expansive overhead shots of the forest but also right up close, whether it’s a shoot-out next to Ethan’s cabin or a panicked Connor fending for himself before encountering Hannah.
“Those Who Wish Me Dead” allows for character development in both word and deed, and the cast achieves as much through their physical presences as through the acting. Jolie never doesn’t look like a movie star, but she’s still convincing as a rough-and-tumble ranger, and Senghore’s seeming proficiency with survival tactics make her a worthy opponent to Gillen and Hoult, whose villains are all the more unsettling due to their lack of sweaty overplaying. As Connor, Little spends much of the movie being traumatized, but he’s equally believable whether he’s in serious danger or having a brief bonding moment with one of the sympathetic older characters.
There are a lot of crises going on here, but Sheridan and company have created a roster of characters with the skills to survive — and more importantly, with the kind of depth and humanity that makes viewers care whether or not they do.
“Those Who Wish Me Dead” opens in US theaters and on HBO Max May 14.