Writer-director Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes opens with a long tracking shot and a monologue about the two-faced nature of modern man’s relationship to violence, pointing out that the Bible features incredible depravity often used to teach children the virtues of grace. Regarding Samson: “(Samson) was the lucky one … in the end, he didn’t have to see the monster he became.” The monologue promises a violent parable of its own that would reflect on our nature through pulp plotting and a few familiar character-actor faces (Frank Grillo as the villain, James Badge Dale as the stalwart friend). It’s a promise on which Harvey can’t quite deliver.
Luke Grimes (known for a number of supporting roles, notably in Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven) stars as Nick Brenner, an ex-con who betrayed his prison brotherhood and escaped with a bunch of money, which he used to start a new life with wife Tara (Marguerite Moreau). Brenner is trying to live a normal life working as, for whatever reason, a furniture upholsterer. He makes friends with Sal (Dale), who has a cool handlebar mustache.
Naturally, Brenner’s old “brothers” come hunting for him and the cash, including Sloan (Grillo), appearing here without an ounce of makeup or hairstyling to differentiate his look from any of his other roles. Not to disparage his performance, which is vintage Grillo and therefore pretty suitable for a real P.O.S. Badman. When Brenner and Sal go away for the weekend to work on a little hunting college, Sloan and his gang attack Tara and ignite Brenner’s latent propensity for violence.
Or so it should, but unfortunately the nature of low-budget filmmaking trips the narrative. At a key juncture, the film’s point of view switches to another character who witnesses the aftermath of the violent altercations before we’re eventually shown everything in real time. It’s not a unique trick, and not even necessarily a bad one in conception, but by the time Harvey finishes his tale’s setup, we’re ready to see some payoff for the opening monologue. It never comes in a satisfactory way.
Still, for a VOD release, Into the Ashes has plenty of style and some fun character turns that make it worth seeing. Its slow-burn fizzle is still brighter than most new VOD releases these days, which often waste their cool high-concept ideas. Here, we get some rural American revenge on a budget — perhaps one too tight to have made the movie this could have been.