Writer/director Aaron Harvey has a distinct thing for set-ups and betrayals. His last two features — Catch .44 and The Neighbor — deal distinctly in these aspects as characters don’t know who to trust at any given moment. Where those films deal more in the inciting incident, his latest effort, Into the Ashes, distributed by RLJE Films, focuses on the aftershocks. Fraught with tension, the resulting crime thriller ruminates on the inescapabilty of the choices we make.
Nick Brenner (Luke Grimes) is a simple guy living a quiet life in a small Alabama town. When he’s not at work or off doing odd jobs with his buddy Sal (James Badge Dale), he’s with his wife Tara (Marguerite Moreau). Despite his simple life, there’s a specter seemingly hanging over his every move, placing concern where there should be joy, distance where there should be presence. All his fears come true when his past arrives on his doorstep and they are not in a forgiving mood.
If you’ve seen a trailer for Into the Ashes, you’ve been misled and that’s either a great or disastrous thing. Into the Ashes is a revenge-based crime thriller, but it’s not the action-packed, propulsive experience the marketing implies. Rather, what Harvey’s constructed is more thoughtful, more deliberate, more meditative in its final form. The film begins with Nick prodding logs in a fire while a voice-over discusses the violence inherent in the Old Testament, specifically focusing on the tale of Samson. In no other moment does the film or the characters bring faith or faithfulness into the conversation, but that opening adds a layer of righteousness to the proceedings, a question about virtue and decency, but, more importantly, as connected to the title, a question about redemption. Harvey achieves this in many subtle ways. For one, everything takes its time. There’s no rush to a finish line here. As such, the audience can’t help but feel their tension rise every time Nick looks over his shoulder or stares into space. His past haunts him and Grimes’s performance makes it clear that it won’t let go. Tara and his life in Alabama represent a new start, but not redemption. It’s a mask Nick wears, even if it’s one he loves deeply and truly. For two, so much of what happens in Into the Ashes is left up to interpretation or deduction. Instead of spoon-feeding information to the audience, the characters speak to each other with the right kind of knowledge for their relationships. This approach forces the audience to lean in, requiring them to pay as much attention to what’s not said as to what is, resulting in on-camera violence which is minimal yet purposeful.
The minimalism extends past the narrative and into the music and performances within Into the Ashes. Developed by composer James Curd (The Neighbor), the music maintains almost the same sullen sound throughout the course of the film, infusing scenes with tension. The consistency in sound supports the continuous dread that follows Nick, no matter the circumstance. Working in tandem with the performances, the music amplifies Nick’s constant desperation and the audience’s sense of distress. Take the scene when Nick calls Tara to check-in on his way out of town with Sal. The audience doesn’t fully know why Nick’s nervous, yet Grimes conveys a distinct unease about being away from Tara. There’s no dialogue that suggests trouble or physicality to imply distress, yet Grimes exudes an aura of concern that’s near impossible not to latch onto. As the phone rings and rings, the camera pulls in on Nick as the music plays until Tara picks up. Tension and resolution all in one small scene, yet it plays beautifully on camera. This is done again when the audience is given a hint of something and, due to some clever direction from Harvey, Nick is able to confirm the something for himself before Harvey shows it to the audience through a simple camera pan. More and more, simplicity is where Into the Ashes works best.
The closest cinematic experience to compare Into the Ashes to is Ethan and Joel Cohen’s adaptation of No Country For Old Men. It, too, is a rumination on violence, while also pondering the value of life. Harvey’s original work does much of the same, infusing his tale with a similar modern western-vibe as a gunslinger must take up arms against a foe hoped to be trapped in the past and the lawman who tries his damnedest to uphold his conviction. This is what makes Into the Ashes an unexpectedly rich experience, but also one which feels like a trick. The marketing indicates something far more rapid and vengeful, which is going to frustrate many who partake in the film. The worst part is that the mishandling of expectations will reduce the chances of an audience to grow. Additionally, though audiences are promised a prominent performance from Frank Grillo (Captain American: The Winter Soldier), his presence is more apparition than physical. His scenes and contributions are significant, giving a performance that works beautifully with Harvey’s understated hand, yet be prepared for little screen time. Combined with the fact that the perspective appears to continuously shift throughout the film in an uneven, seemingly purposeless manner, even the most resolute audiences will likely feel the urge to bail before the payoff.
With proper expectations, Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is an engaging, well-performed, introspective crime thriller. Utilizing every moment of the 97-minute runtime, Harvey offers something more than tricked-out gun fights, indestructible characters, and exposition-heavy dialogue. Instead, Harvey created something different and rewards patient viewers with a reserved, yet clear ending. Impressively, the notion of redemption which Harvey puts forth, he never seeks to answer, allowing the audience to fill those gaps with their own answers. It’s a risky move, but one which fits nicely within the world Harvey’s created.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital July 19th, 2019.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.