Forest fires ravage the British Columbian wilderness in Ash. The drama, however, simmers modestly. This sophomore feature from director Andrew Huculiak (Violent) burns with admirable restraint. As independent journalist Stan (Tim Guinee) covers the blazing wildfires, a personal secret threatens to devastate his life. It burns with as much force as the flames annihilate the picturesque Okanagan valley. This subdued and moody character study scorches with tension and quietly smouldering rage.
Ash once again distinguishes Huculiak as a director with a shrewd ability for harnessing the power of the natural landscape. After 2014’s Violent chilled with its icy look at the lakes of Norway, the natural disaster of the 2017 B.C. wildfires provides an unsettling backdrop for Stan’s inner turmoil. Shot in the actual 2017 wildfires that overwhelmed B.C., each frame evokes terrifying beauty. Huculiak’s own guerilla-style filmmaking mirrors Stan’s near-fatalistic drive for the perfect shot or scoop. Stan propels himself into the thick of the fires, chasing first responders in pursuit of his big break. The images of the red-hot forests conjure elements of danger in even the most beautiful and tranquil places. To shoot anything in this disaster zone is a new kind of crazy. But one can’t help but be awed by the rewards this ballsy filmmaking yields. Ash is incendiary poetry.
Guinee burns brightest
The understated Ash reveals Stan’s dark secret suddenly and subtly. After witnessing Stan blunder his potential breakthrough with mainstream news, and obsessively letting his competition get the better of him, the film suggests that he is not as innocent as he appears. The news catches his wife, Gail (Chelah Horsdal), off-guard and the revelation that ensures we share her surprise. Everything that precedes the allegation suggests that Stan is a docile, if driven, man who is respected and admired. Where most men returning home after chasing fires might be anxious, Stan serenely becomes intimate with Gail. Any thoughts that his perfectionism is dangerous are quickly extinguished, only to have a new flame engulf our perception of him with greater fury.
While the direction by Huculiak and the cinematography Joseph Schweers are truly awesome, Guinee’s performance ultimately burns brightest. Ash lets the actor command every frame, stealing the power of the wildfires’ sweltering performance with Stan’s shattering inner turmoil. This performance has an intense psychology. Guinee creates a man lost in his own shadow and rendered impotent by cycles of self-doubts. Once the allegations against Stan emerge, he thrusts himself back into the smoldering wilderness. Retreating to the burning woods, Guinee explodes just once. It’s a moment of thunderous drama that evokes guilt, shame, and religious expiation with furious physical force. As Stan bathes himself in the mud of the forest and the ashes of the fire, however, he finds himself neither cleansed, nor healed, nor hidden. He realises that his secret will define his life from this point forward.
Ash is purest might
One has to admire Huculiak for “going there,” so to speak. The subject matter of Ash is as risqué as its production is bold. Huculiak handles the taboo material well. He insinuates its sordid character rather than shocking audiences with details. The film’s elusive approach to Stan’s potential deviance ultimately deepens the character study. At the heart of Ash is a question about the nature of evil. Namely, how far can a person explore darkness within himself or herself before doing harm? Whether thoughts themselves make a person evil or one act in order to cross the line between right and wrong, is a dilemma with which Stan and Gail struggle through the film’s end.
Some viewers will undoubtedly find Ash’s subdued restraint inaccessible or unsatisfyingly muted. However, the film eschews dramatic crescendos or catharsis. Instead, it festers a psychological inferno that burns a steady flame. It singes with a sting that reveals itself in good time.
Ash debuts in virtual cinemas and on VOD July 24.
Watch Jason Gorber’s video review for a second take on the film.