Into the Ashes: Southern Comfort, by Alexander Miller
It seems like there is a minor resurgence in contemporary westerns/southern gothic thrillers with movies like Mud, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Blue Ruin, The Hollow Point and Sweet Virginia. Maybe the first season of True Detective is also playing a part here. Regardless, there are worse trends out there, and personally speaking there’s nothing wrong with a good old revenge story, family feud, or crime tale that culminates with a bunch of sweaty dudes waving guns at each other in the deep south.
Can the same be said for Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes? In many ways yes, it is an effective if, at times slight thriller that utilizes its peripheral southern setting to great effect while creating some compelling and intense action scenes. Aaron Harvey, whose other directorial credits include 2011’s Catch .44 and 2018’s The Neighbour, helms a consolidated tale of revenge and redemption spurned from the ex-cons-trying-to-go-straight trope. Not that “trope” is inherently reductive. In regards to Harvey’s film, it’s indicative of a director knowing where to apply strength to best serve his story (as he is the credited writer) with the occasional creative rejiggering.
Into the Ashes opens with some obligatory character introductions, Nick Brenner (Luke Grimes) is a humble mover, likes to go hunting with his buddy Sal (James Badge Dale), but when a mysterious inmate gets his walking papers from the local penitentiary we can’t help but wonder, is he our hero, anti-hero, villain, ancillary character? It’s the recognizable Frank Grillo; ergo we’re going to be drawn to the visible star seeing as Grillo has starred in The Purge series, Zero Dark Thirty as well as The Grey. However, there’s a striking balance of tone throughout the film, Harvey lets us wonder, “who are these people, what are they doing?” It’s this structural economy that many padded, headline features default to, an overriding instinct to explain everything as if it’s entitled information. The subsequent action has a deliberate pace, as a writer/director Harvey allots narrative beats and characterizations on a need-to-know basis. When our ne’er-do-well protagonist is confronted by his former partners in crime, Harvey plays it lean, then, as the story reaches its violent summit, plays it mean.
Into the Ashes isn’t a brilliant movie, but it’s not trying to overextend its hand, which is exactly why this film is an example of resourceful execution and instinctual pacing. While Harvey’s film might feel slender in term of development or under-realized, the lingering effect is that the final product stands as evidence that some filmmakers are operating with the notion that less is more. There is room to elaborate and explore, but the inclination isn’t entirely necessary. This feels like a creative decision on the filmmakers part, and at the end of the day it’s an aesthetic choice, leaving us with a movie that is deliberately tailored to tell a specific type of story of crime of redemption. The stakes are high and relatable, but the dramatic emphasis is terse, if we want to sojourn into literary territory the concise narrative feels like it’s culled from a Hemingway short story or, better yet the world of Elmore Leonard given the rugged southern setting.
In terms of casting Into the Ashes is mounted with confidence and the performers flatter the material with unenforced gravitas. Luke Grimes is a moody but likable scruffy lead, understated but engaging, Robert Taylor has moments of gravely presence, playing an apprehensive but honorable father in law to Grimes’ torn protagonist. Fans of The Departed will be the first to recognize James Badge Dale, this is not the first time he’s donned a part in a sober thriller and hopefully not the last, he’s got the range of boyish naivete and forceful swagger that completes the charisma of any competent action movie star. Frank Grillo carries the seemingly Bernthal-inspired shaggy dog savagery that is recognizably intriguing, while Marguerite Moreau is a recurring screen talent, her part is relatively prescribed which is too bad because she’s a strong player to see.