Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Film Review: Those Who Wish Me Dead (HBO Max)

 Those Who Wish Me Dead.png

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

I enjoyed this movie a lot more than I expected.  I watched this a day after the very disappointing The Woman in the Window.  There is something to be said about when you experience a film that influences how you enjoy it.

Those Who Wish Me Dead centers on a forest firefighter Hannah (Angelina Jolie).  She has entered a self-destructive and reckless life-pattern ever since making a bad call during a raging forest fire that got some people killed.  She is constantly lectured by her ex-boyfriend and Sherrif's deputy Ethan (Jon Berthnal).  However, while doing duty at a lonely fire lookout deep in the woods, she comes across a bloody little boy named Connor (Finn Little).  It turns out that Connor's father Owen (Jack Weber) has some particularly damning evidence against some very shady and powerful forces.  Owen has gone off the grid with his son to seek help from his brother Ethan.  However, they run across two brilliant and brutal hit men: Jack (Aidan Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult).  These two will stop at nothing to get to Connor and kill anyone in their path.  Hannah take it upon herself to protect the boy and get him to safety.

The thing that struck me the most about the movie was how smart it felt.  The biggest plot hole is that you have to believe that the information Owen has cannot simply be sent to the press in the mail or on the internet but must, for some reason, be given in person.  If you accept that, then you have a chase that occurs between hunter and prey where both constantly try to outthink each other.  Hannah and Ethan use all of their resourcefulness against the hitmen, who constantly and brutally adapt to each new situation.  Jack and Patrick are not super-human monsters.  They make mistakes along the way, but they are terrifying in their ability to think on their feet and engage cross any moral line.  At one point they have Ethan's pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore) hostage.   Because we have seen how ruthless these two have been, you have no idea if Allison and her unborn child will make it through the scene alive.  (In fact, there is only moment towards the end where someone makes a decision so stupid that it felt completely out of character).

The movie also does a fantastic job of depicted that rough, enterprising spirit found in people living in this part of the country.  There is a toughness here that can be abrasive, but also one that is strong enough to face the dangers of nature and man.  (I laughed at the way some of the fire fighters laugh at the hipster boyfriend of a local bar girl).  Hannah is not some Mary Sue, nor is she some kind of anti-hero.  She is broken in a lot of ways, but we see her redemption play out when she turns away from her inward guilt towards helping others.  She takes a beating from all of the dangers present and she still pushes forward.  There is a moment I love where Ethan is being forced to help Jack and Patrick.  But Ethan refuses and simply says, "I'd rather keep my dignity."  He makes a calculation about his chances for survival and decides to die rather than violate his conscience (I will not spoil here if Jack and Patrick make good on their threat).

And yet the characters also never felt too stoic.  Hannah's fear is palpable, as well as her bravery.  I was even shocked at the level of humanity that the hitmen show.  At one point, one says to the other, "I'm fading, partner."  There was an odd bond of fellowship communicated between these two monsters that let you see that even in their horrible evil there was something like humanity beneath.

Director and co-writer Taylor Sheridan does a great job of showing you the beauty and the terror of nature.  These woods are alternately serene and scary.  He also knows how to pace a story.  It was quite incredibly how much he was able to pack into a tight 90-minutes.  I also enjoyed the fact that the movie didn't feel overstuffed with needless and extended action sequences.  

Jolie is great in this movie.  She is still every bit the action star she was and hasn't lost an ounce of charisma.  You easily believe that she is someone would follow into danger, despite her recklessness.  Bernthal does a great job too.  You can feel his anxieties rise while at the same time trying to keep them in check long enough to think his way free.  Senghore was a real surprise for me, never having seen her work before.  Not only does she carry off the nurturing, mother-to-be role, but she is completely believable when turning into a mama Grizzly, acting out violently to protect her own.  Gillen and Hoult have a chemistry about them as well, where you can see Patrick is always trying to impress his older partner.  Even Little holds his own with this cast, which is no small feat for a child actor.

And while there is a lot of violence in this film, it has an incredibly strong moral core.  The evil of the antagonist is clearly seen as wicked.  But moreso, there is a nihilism that seems to undergird their world, though this is never clearly articulated.  Our heroes, as broken as they can be, still believe in family and sacrifice, which is something that the bad guys cannot comprehend.  At one point Jack says, "I hate this place," to which someone replies, "It hates you back."  Evil cannot comprehend simple goodness and dignity and courage.

If you are looking for a fine, tense, and entertaining 90-minutes, you should check out Those Who Wish Me Dead.

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