Unsettling psychological drama Ash offers empathy for conflicted character amid B.C. wildfires

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      Starring Tim Guinee and Chelah Horsdal. Streaming at VIFF at Home.

      It’s appropriate that Ash is being theatrically released in a year in which British Columbia is experiencing somewhat of a respite from being severely ravaged by its annual wildfire season. The glossy, stunning images of flames and smoke transforming B.C. into hell on Earth provide a vantage point to reflect upon how beauty, horror, serenity, and confusion can all coexist at the same time. And it is that concept of simultaneity, of how seemingly opposing elements can be layered on top of one another at the same time in disorienting and uncomfortable ways, that simmers at the core of this haunting, unsettling psychological drama.

      Set amid the burning backdrop of the Okanagan, Stan (Tim Guinee), a reporter in Peachland, B.C., covers the firefighting frontlines, nurturing an ambition of breaking nationally.

      Glimpses into Stan’s psyche lay the groundwork for what’s to come after police arrive at his home with a search warrant. With his life upended by disturbing sex-related allegations, Stan plummets into mental deterioration as his long-smoldering internal anguish overtakes him.

      Caught in the tangle is Stan’s wife Gail (Chelah Horsdal), who is torn between her relationship with him and revelations that unveil parts of Stan she never knew. While the narrative provides a fearlessly empathetic view of Stan, at the same time, it also details the impact the fallout has on Gail and community members.

      Ash

      Guinee delivers a compelling and understated performance with an everyman approach underpinned by idiosyncrasies. Horsdal counterbalances and complements Guinee with an equally complex interpretation of Gail, who serves as a stand-in for the audience.

      While there are quibbles—from occasional underarticulation of Stan’s neuroses to metaphors that teeter on overstatement—the film also touches upon mental-health issues that remain unsatisfied by journey’s end. However, Vancouver-based director Andrew Huculiak, whose stunning debut feature Violent garnered critical acclaim, and the screenplay by Cayne McKenzie, Joseph Schweers, and Josh Huculiak deserve commendation for thoughtful and deeply considered artistic steering through challenges of moral ambiguity and discomfort. Visuals by Schweers paired with a score by McKenzie prove integral to the introspective tone.   

      What the film particularly excels at is leaving viewers with the unnerving question of how much do we really know about the people in our lives? Perhaps even more fitting for this particularly troubled period, it also raises the question if it is only during times of crisis that we become fully acquainted with our multiple selves?

      Director Andrew Huculiak will participate in a Q&A on the Vancouver International Film Festival’s Facebook webpage at 7 p.m. tonight (July 31).

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