By Noah Gittell
Friday marks the release of a new Angelina Jolie movie, “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” on HBO Max. It’s an action thriller about a pre-teen murder witness who is protected by a survival expert, played by Jolie, from two assassins, all while running from a massive forest fire. Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan (“Wind River,” TV’s “Yellowstone”), it looks like the kind of high-concept screenplay that could have been spat out by a machine, but the presence of Jolie adds a dose of mystery, as it always does.
After bursting into our lives with an Oscar win for her riveting turn in 1999’s “Girl, Interrupted,” she has woven a circuitous path through her career. She has done the franchise thing with Disney’s “Maleficent” and its 2019 sequel “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”; high-profile voice work in “Kung Fu Panda” and “The One and Only Ivan”; star-driven action films like “Tomb Raider,” “Wanted,” and “Salt’’; and eventually turned towards directing, focusing on issue-minded docudramas such as “In the Land of Blood and Honey” and “First They Killed My Father.”
She has starred in box-office hits and won major awards, so why is the arrival of a new Jolie vehicle not a major event? Maybe it’s because, in the age of superheroes, movie stars aren’t important enough to get us excited on their own; her lead turn in this fall’s highly-anticipated Marvel film, “The Eternals” will surely be a bigger deal. But I think there’s something else. Despite her many accolades and the copious ink that has been spilled on her personal life, Jolie seems to purposefully evade traditional notions of movie stardom. The press, for example, wrote about her so much that they tired of her. Outside of the most gossipy rags, they seem to leave her alone.
Her career path also suggests a certain reluctance to embrace stardom. Every time she scores a major hit, she follows it up with something strange and esoteric, like Clint Eastwood’s 2008 remake of “The Changeling,” which disappeared much like its child protagonist, or last year’s barely-seen “Come Away.” Her directorial efforts have won praise from critics, but despite their earnest attempts to draw attention to humanitarian crises across the world, they never attract much buzz, even from the awards voters she is clearly aiming at.
She somehow avoids the glare of the spotlight while stepping directly into it. There is something wonderfully unknowable about Jolie, especially in these last few years. The enduring image of these recent films is her face frozen in steely reserve – think of “Maleficent” or even the awful “The Tourist” – withholding inexpressible passions. She would make a great cowboy, if she ever felt like doing a Western.
Until then, it’s a skill that was best put to use in 2015’s “By the Sea,” a dense, provocative drama starring Jolie and then-husband Brad Pitt as quarreling lovers on a miserable vacation in the French Riviera. A lyrical spin on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, Jolie wrote and directed the film for her and her husband, teasing viewers with a much-hyped window into their marriage that ended up frustrating almost everyone who saw it with its refusal to provide easy answers or a clear narrative. The film builds towards the inevitable championship fight between Pitt and Jolie – but it never comes. Instead, she lingers in the mysteries of a couple who don’t understand themselves well enough to show us, or each other, their true feelings.
It’s the work of an artist, not a movie star, which clearly threw audiences upon its initial release. Maybe in time “By the Sea” will earn the reputation it deserves, and the mysteries of Jolie’s career will explain themselves. For now, her strategy is still holding up. For 25 years, we have come to see the Angelina Jolie show, even if we never quite understand what’s behind the curtain.