Taylor Sheridan has a mind for creating thoughtful, tense cinema based in the harsh realities of open country.

The screenwriter world building around West Texas bank robbers in Hell or High Water and Mexican drug cartels for a pair of Sicario films successfully transition to the director’s chair in 2017, adapting his own script with his debut feature Wind River, a cold, blistering murder mystery thriller.

Sheridan, creator of the Kevin Costner-led hit television show Yellowstone, returned to the big screen this past weekend with Those Who Wish Me Dead, the most bombastic of his efforts to date and a notable departure from the intimate character dramas that made Sheridan a rising star in cinema.

His second major directorial effort appears to be Sheridan’s take on the 90s midbudget action thriller, pitting Angelina Jolie in the middle of a Montana forest in a story that feels like a strange amalgamation of Backdraft and Last Action Hero.

The Oscar winner stars as a firefighting park ranger alone in the wilderness only to stumble across a teenage witness on the run from the hitmen who murdered his father in front of him.

Jolie does a solid job of portraying a woman haunted by her past and yet her performance feels out of place in this otherwise mundane B-level thriller.

The opening act of Those Who Wish jumps back and forth between Jolie’s Hannah and the inciting incidents that put the hitmen on the trail of Finn Little’s Connor.

Jolie strikes a compelling balance between reckless and somber as Hannah relives tragedy in constant post traumatic stress. Small moments are intimately captured and well-acted, showing glimpses of what a quality Sheridan film can be. Seconds later, this becomes abruptly shattered as the story wanders off to something else.

Little has some heartfelt sadness to his performance although hunted characters in thrillers often are as one-note as Sheridan has written Connor.

The same is true of the two ex-military brothers played by Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult, whose banter is less witty than slightly nefarious and only rises to a slight level beyond mindless goon because Gillen and Hoult are strong character actors who help the material with inflected line delivery.

Sheridan’s strongest point as a storyteller is how a forest fire impacts the entire feature in its second half, becoming both the visual anchor for the final act as well as a clock to drive momentum and trap the hunters and the hunted in the forest.

Cinematography from Ben Richardson is exceptionally strong for a mid-budget thriller. At times, the computer generated images that give the fire its power feel strike an awkward tone where audiences can easily imagine actors performing in front of a green screen. Richardson comes alive, however, in open air moments with a naturalistic approach to his visuals.

Sheridan’s screenplays have been known for both their cruel, realistic violence and subtle poetic nuance, but his latest film telegraphs every moment from start to finish.

While straightforward storytelling has its merits in thrillers like this, Those Who Wish projects itself to be a much deeper feature. 

Yet it offers a remarkably outlandish amount of implausible action and adventure sequences one might expect from a Dwayne Johnson vehicle rather than a Sheridan-penned drama. Massive forest fires, characters attempting to outrun lightning strikes and over-the-top senseless violence give the film an intensely pulpy quality that makes Those Who Wish exceptionally forgettable.

As Warner Brothers continues to release their entire 2021 film slate in theaters and simultaneously on HBO Max, Those Who Wish Me Dead benefits from ease of access as Jolie’s star power should prove to be enough of a draw to interest moviegoers and the terse pace of Sheridan’s film will keep audiences engaged enough for an at-home viewing that might only be slightly better on a bigger screen.

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