Are you ever really out of the criminal life once you’ve dipped your feet inside? It’s a question as old as dirt in the land of cinema, which makes every filmmaker’s attempt at the setup a difficult endeavor.
Thankfully, writer/director Aaron Harvey shows some dark restraint and has a great cast to work with here in Into the Ashes, a movie that takes a familiar recipe, preparing it slower than usual.
Nick Brenner (Luke Grimes, Yellowstone) left his darkness behind years ago, moving to a rural town to be with his dad, where he met a beautiful woman (Marguerite Mareau) and built a new life. A house, job, love, and happiness. Nick has a loyal best friend in Sal (the invaluable James Badge Dale) yet lacks the approval of the weary sheriff (Robert Taylor).
Unfortunately, the darkness comes back to mess with Nick’s future in the form of old partners in crime, led by Sloane (Frank Grillo, a wonderfully sinister presence). They come knocking on Nick’s door, bringing trouble.
It doesn’t take an expert to guess what happens next, but Harvey employs storytelling techniques and a slow-burn approach that makes the premise come off fresher. Instead going for gross-out close-ups, he relies on your mind to assess the damage of certain fatalities. It’s like when you drive by a nasty car wreck and have to imagine what happened. He wants you to feel the pressure and intensity instead of merely seeing it. Once again, the restraint makes for a good stylistic changeup here.
With rural Alabama providing the setting here, every road is winding and kicks dust in your face, the clothing looks unwashed, and the late 1990’s landline-stuffed visuals lend the film a small escape to the past when smartphones didn’t dominate our lives. Harvey’s landscape is full of regret, vengeance, and overall, a slithering sadness that doesn’t go away.
The cast is the true highlight here. Grimes is a capable leading man, showing us enough of Nick’s dark past in the film’s first shot to balance to with the noble yet contemplative mystique that we meet in the following scenes. He doesn’t need a lot of range to bring this anti-hero to life.
Grillo has mixed up his character arcs this year, going from decrepit bad (Donnybrook) to good-hearted criminal (Point Blank) back to very bad here. The darkness fits his acting style like a glove, you can almost seen the malevolence in the high arches of that glorious hair. Sloane is out for blood, but has dimensions to his madness and Grillo gets a pair of great scenes to show off his talent. I always say more Grillo is better, but here, like the rest of the film, he carries weight even when he’s not on screen.
Badge Dale is such a gifted performer that he can drop into any movie and light it up. Taylor brings his Longmire gruff to an important role. He has an ability to make a line of dialogue land in ways other actors can not, which helps elevate material.
One could make an argument Alabama is a supporting actor here, especially with the fine work by John Rutland, the cinematographer. The camera does a few fancy tricks, but the lingering imagery on display is what casts a spell on you. The sound mixing was also exceptional, especially a waving tarp/cover in a half-built home late in the film during a scene with Grimes and Taylor.
Some will complain that a plot device used late in the film takes more than it gives, and that the fate of a few main characters, especially the manner of death of one, isn’t fully explained or broken down. If you want tidy bows and easy to unfold plot points, go somewhere else. I like to think Harvey constructed this film as a tough but fair look at life for ex-cons, purposefully leaving it open-ended. If you know of the Samson bible story, you shouldn’t be too lost. But like Nick, don’t expect to find complete closure.
This film didn’t blow my socks off, but it sucked me into the world. I forgot where 100 minutes went, and that my friends should always be the goal. The film has a lived-in worn t-shirt feel to it that fits the premise and look, and the dark restraint show by Harvey casts a fine shadow.
Into the Ashes is dark and gritty slice of Americana, one that dares to look into the seedier places that most films don’t pause to reflect on. It takes a familiar idea and slow cooks it like a piece of pork, asking for patience but providing fireworks in the end.
If you can’t see it in theaters, rest easy. Black out the windows, turn off the fan, and watch it for $6.99 on demand at home. It may be a better experience.
The film was produced in association with Grillo and Joe Carnahan’s company, WarParty. They are making old school thrillers with a unique DNA laced into the fabric of a familiar plot. Consider Into the Ashes another notch on that cinematic belt.