Published Jul 23, 2020Ash, written and directed by Andrew Huculiak of Vancouver band We Are the City, has been gaining much acclaim as it makes its rounds through the festival circuit for being beautiful on a technical and stylistic level, and for being daring and controversial on a narrative level. Indeed, Ash is a beautiful film sonically and cinematographically, bolstered by perfect performances delivered by its lead cast. But in comparison to all it undeniably accomplishes on the technical front, the film rings hollow with its story. It's unclear whether the story is controversial for the sake of being controversial, or whether it is trying to communicate a concrete point.
Set against the blazing amber skies of Okanagan wildfires and to a stunning score by Huculiak's own We Are the City, Ash is about Stan (Tim Guinee), a journalist who runs a local independent news site in Peachland, BC. While he is lauded as a hero by the residents of Peachland, Stan hopes to make a national mark with his on-the-ground reporting of the wildfires. But soon after returning from a reporting trip, he's accused of a horrific crime. His reputation, his marriage and his mental health all fall apart.
The first act is punctuated by allusions to Stan's mental health issues — he has intense anxiety and OCD. He hurts himself for social blunders, with his self-administered punishment outweighing the badness, if any, of what he did. But it's not until the second act that his crime is mentioned. Coming out of left field, Stan's crime is so unexpected that you spend a good chunk of what happens afterwards, even his admitting he did it, doubting whether he did. Is he accepting blame for something he didn't do? It's not until he goes to therapy that we get an explanation for what Stan's disorder is and looks like.
Guinee as the self-flagellating Stan is amazing to behold, and Chelah Horsdal, as Stan's wife Gail, delivers a complicated and compelling performance as a woman conflicted and tormented upon hearing the allegations against Stan, whom she loves no end. Guinee and Horsdal are powerhouses who, along with cinematography (by Joseph Schweers) and powerful score — which hangs sombre as a funeral pyre over the expansive shots of the plumes of smoke, bright scorch of the wildfires, and the rain of ash — make a stunning film.
When it comes to story, however, there's something troubling. Stan's crime is certainly shocking in face of his humanity, which the film has us relate to or sympathize with in the first act — and this juxtaposition is the reason for the film's overall controversial impact. But I'm led to wonder about the movie's implications. Did Huculiak make this film for the sake of making a controversial film? Is the movie's goal to have us feel sympathy for a bad man, who absolutely is guilty of the crime he is charged with? Is Stan not really a bad man? But if he is not really a bad man, then is this movie about mental illness?
If it is about mental illness, it could have spent more time working that angle — more time with the therapist who shows up for the one scene, more time talking about the medication that Stan mentions using near the film's end. More time looking at how he's trying to cope with his diagnosis, the work he's doing every day to navigate life. Guinee is certainly up for the challenge of conveying Stan's metal health struggles and he heartbreakingly shows how the brain rends the body into a million pieces in response to trauma.
Ultimately, this beautiful movie leaves the viewer wondering what the point it's trying to communicate is. Is the point that we, as society, should be more empathetic toward people accused of terrible crimes, taking into account various mental health factors? But then, if this is the case, then the movie's poetic visual vocabulary doesn't leave it any room to explore how OCD works, or how it's treated with therapy and through medication.
Is the point of the movie simply to make us feel conflicted? If so, then it is an all-round success. (Game Theory)