Travis Leamons // Film Critic
INTO THE ASHES
At the outset of Aaron Harvey’s INTO THE ASHES, a mysterious narrator opines about the cruelty of the Bible, citing the violence committed by Sampson. “In the end, he didn’t have to see the monster he became. A man can only see so much darkness before he goes blind.” The throaty inflection is a precursor to a small saga bent on secrets, revenge, and stepping outside of the law.
There are three players: Nick (Luke Grimes), a criminal that has escaped his dark life, now living in obscurity in rural Alabama; Sloan (Frank Grillo), a harder criminal who was just released from prison and fixed on revenge; and Frank (Robert Taylor), a small-town sheriff who has kept the peace for three decades but abhors his daughter’s choice in a husband (ahem, Nick).
Nick is the obvious pick to be the story’s center; he’s got the baggage and the most to lose. Sloan’s purpose is more pointed. He’s Old Testament. Specifically, the part in taking an eye for an eye to make things square. Frank is a contradiction. He upholds the law until he has to decide to go against his ethos so that true justice can be served.
As someone who loves noir and its evolution from the classic tradition to neo-noir, and the subgenres comprised therein, INTO THE ASHES feels like it should be a new take. Until I realized that this rural noir (aka country noir) is not new, it’s prevailing. Living in today’s society, where those with cavalier attitudes interact with those who are quick to rile, violence is inevitable. More so when you include desperation by those struggling to live, where turning to a life of crime feels like a job promotion. This is why we have films like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, HELL OR HIGH WATER, and more recent, the urban-set DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE.
Nick was a criminal and stole the cash from the last job that saw the leader of the crew, Sloan, carted off to prison. Now he’s settled with a wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and works in a furniture repair shop alongside his pal Sal (James Badge Dale). Nick is content with living a simple life. He thought he was in the clear until Sloan and his cohorts go looking for him and the money. As an assurance that he means business, Sloan makes a house call while Nick and Sal are out of town for a weekend hunting trip. We aren’t shown what Sloan did to Tara; his description of the incident is all we, and Nick, need to know. A shootout follows leaving the recently bereaved laid out on the floor, exit wounds oozing blood. But still alive.
Nick knew his past was inevitable and yet he still put his wife in the crosshairs of a dangerous sociopath. Even Sheriff Frank knew Nick was no good for his daughter. Is writer-director Aaron Harvey trying to say we are better off sticking with things as they are now than venturing off to start something new? That’s what it looks like. Nick’s decision to steal the money and start a new life goes from bad to worse. Sloan’s seething revenge starts a raging fire that won’t end until one of them stops breathing.
Payback is all well and good if you’re invested in the characters and the story. INTO THE ASHES wants to be a rural noir about men wounded by tragedy and the motivation behind carrying out vengeance. While it is commendable to see that Harvey drifts slightly from what is expected, his execution is stifled by dialogue seemingly paraphrased from Cormac McCarthy and Daniel Woodrell (WINTER’S BONE). Most egregious is underutilizing James Badge Dale. After a strong role in THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK, his screen presence is diminished in the best-friend part. He really should have played Nick. Luke Grimes conveys a harried expression throughout the film. Even with a new life, he appears lifeless.
Aaron Harvey’s INTO THE ASHES is a nice try at making a picture with the style of rural noir. Too bad when the flames are stamped out we remain lukewarm to what has transpired.
INTO THE ASHES in now playing in select theaters and is available on On Demand and through digital.