Those Who Wish Me Dead may be the masterpiece of the Sheridanverse, a searing vision of climate change set against the backdrop of his beloved Montana. The film opens magisterially, with a team of smokejumpers skydiving over a forest blaze, signalling the arrival of wildfires as a way of life in a globally warmed world. From there, we move to two casualties of the current climate wars, the first of whom is a smokejumper herself. As a member of these new frontline workers of the climate crisis, Hannah Faber, played by Angelina Jolie, has seen her fair share of disaster: “Assume the worst case scenario. Assume catastrophe and act accordingly.” But she also has her own personal trauma to contend with – having watched three young campers and a fellow smokejumper perish in a forest fire after reading the wind wrong. By the time the film begins, her grief has propelled her into a series of self-destructive escapades that culminate with her being relegated to a fire tower, where she has to report lightning storms and prospective strike sites. While she longs to be back in the field, this isn’t the worst job for Hannah, who has an intuitive taste for weather, a capacity for affective meteorology, such that she already seems to be thinking in terms of a new scale of firestorm.
The second casualty of climate catastrophe emerges from the baking heat of Florida, the oceanic frontline of the American climate crisis. We’re introduced to this aspect of the narrative through a pair of assassins, Jack and Patrick, played by Aiden Gillett and Nicholas Hoult, who turn up at the home of a target under the guise of inspecting the gas meter. Moments later, they emerge, bloodsoaked, from this same house, which explodes into smithereens behind them, in a tragedy that local news outlets are quick to attribute to an undetected gas leak. The entire crime is framed as an act of global heating, and then contextualised through the characters of Owen, played by Jake Weber, and his son Connor, played by Finn Little. Upon learning of the “gas leak” on television, Owen, who also lives in Florida, explains to Connor that his role as a forensic accountant has led him to a government conspiracy so drastic that it stretches all the way to Congress – a conspiracy on the scale of ongoing climate destruction itself. Together, they flee the heat of Florida, and the impending doom of another urban firestorm, by heading for the remote Montana wilderness, where they hope to seek refuge with Owen’s friend Ethan, the local sheriff, played by Jon Bernthal.
Paradoxically, however, the further that Owen and Connor retreat into the forest, the closer they come to the forefront of climate catastrophe. Sheridan’s great muse is the western frontier, and the way in which it continues to ramify in the present moment, albeit in muted and minor forms. Here, he presents a kind of climate colonisation, in which the impact of global warming on the American heartland is as convulsive and and transformative as that of westward expansion. To reach Ethan’s jurisdiction, Owen and Connor have to take the Lewis and Clark trail, bringing the film’s breathless sense of landscape to its peak: “Can you imagine what Lewis and Clark must have thought when they saw that?” Yet it’s on this very road that the assassins ambush father and son, forcing their car into a deep ravine, and shooting Owen in the head, as Connor escapes, and makes his way alone across the unforgiving topography. Having decided they can’t afford to leave witnesses in their search for Connor, the assassins light a forest fire to obscure the trail of bodies they’re planning to scatter across their wake.
In other words, the assassins start a forest fire as a way of covering their tracks, maximising their clients’ profits, and mitigating their own risk of financial loss, turning the film into a damning indictment of the perverse ways in which financial institutions contribute to climate change from behind a web of risk management. As Jack and Patrick hunt down their prey, they become the coal face of a super-elite for whom planetary destruction is itself at act of risk management, a way of preserving short-term profits against every contingency, including the ongoing survival of the human species. Conversely, in a twist on Sheridan’s perennial ruralism, urban life, with its rhetorics of risk, profit and economy, is reduced to a pair of corporate assassins who deliberately light forest fires in order to achieve their clinical goals.
The main body of the film follows Connor after he witnesses his father’s execution, escapes into the woods, runs into Hannah, and bonds with her. Between them, they have to negotiate an ever-shrinking space between corporate crime and natural disaster – between a breached firewall and a literal fire wall. Much of this revolves around the remote fire tower where Hannah has been stationed, a relic of a much older era in forest management that feels on the cusp of being remediated as an outpost in the new climate wars. The action keeps encircling and returning to this quant timber structure, which becomes the focal point for the contested sightlines on environmental catastrophe that structure the film. Interestingly, the other main structure in Those Who Wish Me Dead, Sheriff Ethan’s cabin, also rehabilitates an older trope – that of survivalism, which in Sheridan’s hands becomes less about white man’s retreat from the global, as it so often ramifies in modern American society, and more a necessary vantage point for combating a climate indifference that starts in major urban centres, but is felt most dramatically in the American heartland. In fact, the emblem of this cabin is not a white man at all, but a black woman, Ethan’s wife Allison, played by Medina Senghore, who runs a survivalist school, and is the first person to escape the assassins, while rehabilitating the cowboy archetype when she sets out on horseback to rescue her husband.
Above and beyond the characters, however, it often feels as if Those Who Wish Me Dead is trying to visualise our present moment as the tipping-point of irreversible, irrefutable and inconceivable climate change. Gradually, the forest grows more abstract, as if dissolving into some as-yet unimaginable climate future, as when Connor and Hannah come across an enormous hollowed-out plain that seems to have caught and held a thunderstorm, not unlike Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field in New Mexico, meaning they have to dodge one strike after another as they make their way to sanctuary several miles away. Likewise, as Connor and Hannah grow closer to the fire front, embers start to percolate into Sheridan’s mise-en-scene, but so subliminally that they initially look like dust or snow (this is Montana after all), evoking a new era of climate incoherence, the dissolution of weather as we know it. And this dissolution is often temporal as much as spatial, as in the eerie opening act, where Sheridan frequently cuts between the encroaching firestorm in the forest, and what appears to be a bright summer day mere miles away, in the infernal equivalent of a flash flood. Finally, when the fire peaks, it occludes any sense of the sky, or horizon – instead, it becomes the horizon.
This climate incoherence builds to the extraordinary climactic scene, in which Connor and Hannah find themselves trapped in a gully. Together, they hold their breath and lie at the bottom of a creek, watching the fire pass by above through the rippling surface of the water. It’s an image that fuses wildfires and rising ocean levels into a traumatic singularity, while envisaging climate catastrophe as the earth returning to its most elemental components, flame and water, and relegating human existence to the minute threshold between the two, the gulps of fiery air that Connor and Hannah take periodically before sinking back into the murk once more. Eventually, they are rescued, but through a firejumping sequence that harkens back to the opening credits, evoking an ongoing cycle of escalating environmental destruction rather than providing closure or catharsis in any traditional way. No surprise, then, that the film never leaves the site of the fire, let alone resolves Connor’s narrative, or the broader espionage narrative. Rather, Sheridan ends with a pan up to reveal the full scale of the smoke plumes billowing on the horizon, as an army of helicopters lead our eye towards it one last time – the same helicopters, you feel, that populated Vietnam cinema in the 70s and 80s, before shifting towards depictions of the Los Angeles ghetto following Boyz ‘N the Hood in the 90s. The traumatic twentieth century seems to be both invoked and traversed here in a vision of the next century in America, and in the world – an era marked less by individual figures of evil than by the amorphous “those” of the title who wish us harm, or are perhaps just indifferent to our harm, from the managerial distance of their fortified finance.