Where do I start with this review?
I’ve been pondering the movie Ash from Canadian filmmaker Andrew Huculiak for a few days now and have been trying to decide how to do this. By far this is one of, if not the most, difficult movie reviews I’ve had to do. I can’t fully divulge my feelings and thoughts on this film without full-on spoilers and that’s not typically how I like to do things. This is going to be a movie that will be rather polarizing. So if you want to go into this, I’ll explain a little later. Whelp… here it goes.
Ash tells the story of a down on his luck small-town reporter, Stan Hurst (Tim Guinee), who is trying desperately to draw attention to himself and his small online publication The Peachland Voice while reporting on the Okanagan wildfires. Soon after, he’s accused of a horrible crime and now he has to fight to save his marriage and reputation. During my research on this movie’s background, I understand that this is actually based on a true story that Huculiak boar witness as it happened to a close childhood friend’s family.
First, allow me the moment to touch on the cinematography. From my understanding, director Andrew Huculiak and some members of his team flew into the area where the Okanagan fires raged in 2016 and recorded a vast library of scenes and footage that they would later use and then brought in the actors to film their parts while the fires still ravaged the lands in the distance. The shots of the fire are beautiful, haunting and terribly frightening at the same time. It was really a remarkable accomplishment by all involved.
One series of moments in particular that really stood out was when Stan was sitting in a pond watching the black ash fall around him like snow while the air was thick with smoke. This moment felt to me like a metaphor for what Stan’s life is at this exact moment. He feels calm and at peace which is something he struggles with, especially at night – it then segues to Stan wandering the streets at night, casually looking through windows catching a small glimpse of what life is like for other people. There’s a real sense of sadness in that scene but next, we see him in a darkened room, feverishly hammering away at the keyboard on his laptop with some dark and foreboding music leading us to believe he’s up to no good.
The acting is really quite good. Tim Guinee, who was hired just 48hrs before the shooting took place, really puts in a great performance. Early in the film, he struck me as quirky and maybe even a little eccentric. What you’ll eventually learn is that he’s actually suffering from mental illness. Hurst’s wife Gail (Chelah Horsdal) puts in an equally strong performance as she questions the allegations and how to handle it. She’s broken and hurt but wants to believe in her husband and wants to be there for him.
Now here’s where I the real spoilers come into play – Fair warning
I had half expected Stan to be guilty of capitalizing off the wildfires that he had started. A horrific crime in and of itself. But then the truth came out that he was having fantasies about sex with children. A truly heinous and disgusting thing. As a father of 2 little girls, this made me very uncomfortable to think that this man was the “hero” of the story. As Stan continues to face these thoughts and who he is as a person, Stan learns that he has a form of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Weird, random thoughts that become so consuming to them that they develop these patterns of behaviour that are meant to settle the mind down. Similar to someone who may touch their door handle 20 times before leaving a room.
I could no longer cheer or hope for Stan to succeed. I looked at this character with a great deal of disdain. I had to watch a second time. Upon my second viewing, I found myself feeling a bit sorry for the man and that angered me. I shouldn’t feel bad for a man who thinks of children in that manner. Even though the movie makes it abundantly clear that Stan took no pleasure in the thoughts that were invading his head and it was legitimately just a condition beyond his control. His actions were not formed in malice but illness and a need to quiet his misfiring brain.
I like to think that I’m more understanding than the average bear but, I think in my heart of hearts, that if I knew this person in real life I wouldn’t want him around my kids. Maybe I’m angrier with myself for that introspective.
If you’re still with me here by this point, you probably want to know if I would recommend this film. I’d have to say the answer is yes, but with a warning – the subject matter is a bit disturbing but the movie strangely worked for me despite my feelings towards Stan. The message it presents is interesting. The camera work of the wildfires is captivating, the performances were extremely well done by everyone but Tim Guinee was exceptional in his portrayal of Stan. All in all this is a fine piece of Canadian cinema.
Ash falls to the earth as a Vimeo On Demand release on Friday, July 24th and iTunes Canada release on Tuesday, July 28.