Into the Ashes (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★
Most will walk away from “Into the Ashes,” written and directed by Aaron Harvey, and consider it to be too slow a thriller involving a man who attempts to exact vengeance on a trio who killed his wife. Who can blame them when revenge movies are typically fast-paced? A case can be made that a third to about half of this project is exposition. But that’s precisely what I liked about it: the template is familiar but the approach is different, challenging, perhaps even off-putting. I go even further: I think the story provides no catharsis. And so why is it worth seeing?
The answer lies in its style. Clearly influenced by character-driven neo-noir pictures with some philosophical leanings, the film is silent, brooding, and interested in observing the every day of its subject’s life. Nick (Luke Grimes) is married to Tara (Marguerite Moreau) and they live an ordinary partnership in rural Alabama. The camera captures and stays still during Nick’s private’s moments. There is suggestion that this man is more complicated than the mask he puts on for others. Does he consider himself to be a monster in the past?
When he is by himself, it feels as though he carries a secret so heavy that he is suffocating. It also comes across as though he is waiting for something that he knows will catch up to him. This sense of inevitability prevents Nick from being truly himself. And so there is a wall—between him and his friends (James Badge Dale), him and his wife, certainly between him and his father-in-law (Robert Taylor, also providing narration), as well as him and the audience. If you expect that penetration of such wall is in the formula, you will be disappointed.
People around Nick think they know him. There is a level of sadness to this incomplete connection, but the screenplay does not make it a priority to explore or exorcise it. It’s just the way things are. Grimes plays the enigmatic man as if he wishes to be invisible. There is a gentleness to Nick but a danger, too. When faced with a former colleague who has just been released from prison (Frank Grillo), Nick need not be reminded of his guilt for it is always there. Nick exhibits no fear. Perhaps it is because his anger is so overwhelming due to what Sloan and the other two (David Cade, Scott Peat) did to his wife. “We used to be a family,” one of them claims, as if he, too, is on a quest to set things right. They share no blood. But by the end of this story, blood will be shed. It must.
“Into the Ashes” reminds me of Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace” and Henry Dunham’s “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” not because of the content but in the senses they evoke while sitting through them. There is curiosity and excitement, yes, and there is violence. But what I love most is the feeling that the project is made without compromise—that the work is made with and driven by passion. It is not interested in meeting anyone’s expectation. What matters most is telling the story the way it ought be told. More filmmakers should follow suit.
The film is for those hoping to experience an alternative approach of telling a revenge story. It may not provide satisfaction in a traditional sense, but it offers an eye and ear for poetry. A heavy, portentous atmosphere. It gives images of action, but it is up to us to dig deeper and surmise what it is that propels each character and why. When the picture reaches moments of monotony, does a character on screen feel stagnant in some way? We are inspired to ask what makes sense for them instead of what feels right for a standard action-thriller. Do not expect to be spoon-fed here.