“Those Who Wish Me Dead” has an awfully twee title. It comes from Michael Koryta’s 2014 novel. But the twee-ness is OK, since this adaptation is pretty good, if also violent and a bit overblown. The goodness should come as no surprise, since Taylor Sheridan directed. Along with Koryta and Charles Leavitt, Sheridan did the script. The movie’s both in theaters and available on HBO Max.
Anyone who’s seen Sheridan’s “Wind River” (2017) or the cable series “Yellowstone” knows what a real feeling he has for the Big Sky Country. That’s where most of “Dead” takes place. Most but not all: It’s a very bad bit of business in Florida that sets things in motion. Hit men are after a corruption-catching accountant (Jake Weber), so he goes on the lam with his middle-schooler, Connor (Finn Little, who’s impressive in a very demanding role). Connor’s uncle (Jon Bernthal) is a deputy sheriff in rural Montana, so . . .
The deputy’s wife (Medina Senghore) is six months’ pregnant. That in no way limits her abilities with a rifle, shotgun, or improvised flame thrower, all of which will come in handy. “Dead” is a neo-western as well as a thriller, and the women here are even more formidable than the men. Another example is the deputy’s ex-girlfriend, Hannah (Angelina Jolie), a smokejumper. Fire matters a great deal in “Dead,” and that improvised flame thrower — much smaller than the one Leonardo DiCaprio uses in “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” — is the least of it. There’s some scary bad-guy stuff in the movie, but nothing to compare for fearfulness with its climactic forest fire.
Jolie is top billed (of course), but she mostly stands around. A mistake Hannah made leading a group of firefighters the year before has relegated her to fire-tower duty. “I’m in a 20-by-20 box on stilts with no toilet,” she grouses. Boxed-in describes her acting situation for much of the movie. That changes once Connor arrives, but Jolie is pretty much wasted. She does get to exercise her muscles, acting and otherwise, when the hit men show up.
They’re played by Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen. Hoult is a long way from “The Favourite” (2018) and “The Great” (2020). Gillen is particularly good. Morally, he’s playing a character not very far from his days on “The Wire” and “Game of Thrones.” Gillen operates with a cool efficiency that’s not unlike Sheridan’s filmmaking.
Someone Very Famous makes a cameo appearance as Someone Very Bad. The Someone Very Famous (the surprise of seeing him — all right, it’s a him — provides part of the pleasure) has the chops to be able to say with a straight face, “What got us here doesn’t matter. It’s a zero-sum game. Treat it that way.”
That’s a useful reminder that dialogue isn’t exactly what “Dead” is about. It’s about setting and scale and action and danger, as you might expect. What you might not expect is that it’s also about the bond that grows between Hannah and Connor. As a title, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is a bit misleading as well as twee. It deflects emphasis from the most important thing in the movie, those who protect and sustain.
THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD
Directed by Taylor Sheridan. Written by Michael Koryta, Charles Leavitt, and Sheridan; based on Koryta’s novel. Starring Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Jon Bernthal, Nicholas Hoult, Aidan Gillen, Medina Senghore. On HBO Max and at Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 100 minutes. R (violence, language, serious child endangerment)
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.