Restraint is not a common artistic or narrative characteristic in revenge films nowadays. We live in an explicit world where the louder and more outlandish outpourings of violence are what grab attention and audiences. The stern and sullen are taken as dull and tedious. Like its title, Into the Ashes resides in the crackling smolder instead of the bright flames. There is plenty of heat to burn and brand from that calmer temperature of cinematic coals. Into the Ashes hits limited theatrical release and VOD outlets on July 19th.
Aaron Harvey’s fifth film and third feature following 2018’s The Neighbor resides somewhere between a “southern” and rustic neo-noir. The end is the beginning as we see who we will come to know as Nick Brenner, played by Yellowstone’s Luke Grimes, presiding over a fire pit with a shotgun by his side. The disheveled and solitary man utters no words as he takes draws from a cigarette watching the erasure of whatever items went into that small blaze. A direful voiceover from Robert Taylor’s sheriff Frank Parson does the talking by waxing on the cruelty of The Bible, tipping you off to the level of morals in play and the likely belted section of the country standing as the film’s setting.
Between the on-screen flickers, the Frank speaks on the paradox of love coming from stories of violence in The Bible and highlights the famous Israelite warrior Samson from the Book of Judges. He marvels at the story’s horrid details that get left out of Sunday School. The sheriff formulates the conclusion that “a man can only see so much darkness before he goes blind.” We are meant to see Nick as another Samson; a fighting soul pushed to the brink of focused rage bent on personal justice. Imagine unshackling Samson.
That is precisely the trajectory of Into the Ashes as it shifts backward from this opening and rolls forward through the events leading up this cleansing fire. Nick keeps a meager existence in rural Alabama. He is married to the devoted Tara (prolific actress Marguerite Moreau), holds down a steady job at a furniture shop, and helps his work buddy Sal (James Badge Dale of 13 Hours) rehab a cabin and hunt on the weekends. This placid station in life has sought to heal the visible and invisible scars from an unseen violent past.
Frank Grillo’s Sloan represents the viciousness of that former history. Newly released from prison, he re-assumes leadership of his criminal crew (TV character actors David Cade and Scott Peat) to hunt down the one missing man who betrayed his so-called “understanding family.” When Sloan brings his strife to Nick’s door while he’s away with Sal, the confrontations turn fatal and grim. Sloan’s savage acts of reprisal against Nick ignite good old-fashioned revenge from three men to even the odds: a husband, a father, and a loyal friend. Sloan’s line of “you killed her the moment you put that ring on her finger” only provokes the coming fury of this patient thriller even more.
It’s not too hard for professional film heavy Frank Grillo to be the toughest and scariest guy in any given room. Grillo’s supreme presence, both on-screen and as an executive producer off-screen, is a boon for Aaron Harvey and this movie. Luke Grimes steps up to Grillo’s level with his own quieter strength just fine. When he breaks, he breaks with grit to match the menace. James Curd’s predatory musical score pulsates alongside both of their looming and stalking gaits with tremendous atmosphere.
The balancing lawful presence of Robert Taylor (The Meg) expands Into the Ashes. His character could have been one-dimensionally painted as the outmatched straight arrow or the frazzled pursuer. Instead, his narration and investigatory presence in that triangle of revenge from Lesson #2 gives the film a parallel perspective to Nick’s. When Frank tells Nick he “should have let the law handle it” and “the law is the one thing that keeps us from being savages” only to have Nick reply simply “the law wouldn’t do what I did,” there is a pause of grizzled understanding without further preaching that shapes solid depth to this movie’s rueful voice.
Into the Ashes is lean, mean, and never gaudy with over-acting. Once again, its restraint is its top quality. The static lens of cinematographer of John W. Rutland and the brisk sound editing of Brett Murray control the frenzy and measure the punches. Other retribution films and pseudo-westerns would fill characters like Nick and Sloan with cheap words and impossible acts of action that would reek with implausibility. Showdowns would be operatic and loud. Sure, something like that could make for pulpy spectacle and giddy thrills (you know who you are, Quentin Tarantino), but there is gainful power to be found in this movie’s brittle fortitude. Remember, a quiet glowing briquette will singe just as severely as the wildest flare. Send a hat tip to Aaron Harvey’s wiser choices.