The stylish and violent modern-day Western noir “Into the Ashes” focuses primarily on Frank Grillo’s Sloan, a sociopathic hardcore criminal who’s just out of prison and hell-bent on revenge.
Wait, hold on. The true center of the story is Luke Grimes’ Nick, who has shed his dark past and is now living an uneventful and quiet life — married to a wonderful woman, working at a furniture store, keeping his nose clean.
Check that. “Into the Ashes” actually is most concerned with Robert Taylor’s Frank, a small-town sheriff with a Gary Cooper-esque demeanor who has kept the peace for some three decades and has never once stepped outside the law or broken his own moral code — until now, when he just might have to make an exception in the interest of true justice.
To the credit of writer-director Aaron Harvey, “Into the Ashes” keeps us guessing throughout as to which of these characters — if any — will still be standing after their paths cross in brutal, bloody fashion.
At the outset of the story, an unseen narrator says:
“People never think about the cruelty of the Bible … the violence. … Samson killed a thousand men with a donkey jawbone. Of course, Samson was the lucky one. 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.”
But who is delivering that heavy and fantastically over-the-top observation? Is it Sloan, who maims and kills with casual cruelty? Or Nick, who has always known his past might come knocking on his door in the middle of the night? Or the sheriff, whose daughter is married to Nick even though he warned her this guy was bad news?
“Into the Ashes” is set in rural Alabama, and I believe we’re in the relatively recent past circa the late 1990s, given everyone still has wall-mounted landlines with those long twisty cords, the signs outside rundown motels boast of having air conditioning and HBO, and one character has a cell phone that looks like an early model Nokia.
Frank Grillo (“The Grey,” “End of Watch,”) who has a great screen presence and excels at playing intense, volatile characters, is the perfect choice to play the recently paroled Sloan, who has little trouble tracking down his former partner. That’s Nick, who apparently betrayed the crew on their last job, stole the money and used it to jump-start his new life.
James Badge Dale (“The Departed,” “Iron Man 3”) plays Nick’s best friend Sal, who doesn’t hesitate to help Nick even as all hell breaks loose in town and he’s risking jail or death by sticking with Nick. (“Don’t get yourself into trouble, Sal,” says Sal’s supportive wife, echoing a sentiment expressed by many a wife or girlfriend in many a Western.)
After Sloan and his crew arrive in town and blood is spilled, writer-director Harvey sling-shots the story forward, where we see the aftermath of a series of deadly confrontations, as experienced through the eyes of a certain character who is just as confused as we are about what has happened.
It’s a maddening, frustrating sequence — but eventually all is explained, and we learn the identity of the narrator who introduced the story, and while not all the pieces of the puzzle perfectly fit into place, it’s still a good yarn filled with arresting visuals and solid performances.