Elegiac and elusive from start to finish, Brian Levin’s directorial debut “Union Bridge” certainly scores points for drumming up a foreboding atmosphere. Cinematographer Sebastian Slayter vividly captures the film’s frosty, autumnal Western Maryland setting, with long, wide, repeating shots of lush hillsides, barren trees, rusty factories and shimmering moons. Each establishing shot sequence tells us a smidgen more information, and in each one the superb score (by Turner Curran, Steve Damstra, Chris Retsina and Caleb Stine) intensifies, as muted industrial murmurs eventually give way to shrieking violins. Levin fills the movie with striking images–nuns crossing a railroad track at dusk, dying wasps, a screaming, ghostly woman in the woods–that, we assume, will become meaningful motifs by film’s end.
Unfortunately, all of Levin’s hard work has gone into aura. The film’s technical triumphs are at the service of an uninvolving–and uneventful–story. It’s all the more disappointing that this story involves murder, madness, digging illegally for gold and flashbacks to Civil War-era treachery.
Most films commit the deadly sin of too much exposition; this one could decidedly benefit from more, especially with characters so taciturn and opaque. Will Shipe returns from a “city”–never named–to his mother’s manse in the film’s title small town. We learn that he comes from money, that his mother (Elisabeth Noone, a dead ringer for Ellen Burstyn) is stern and obsessed with maintaining the Shipe reputation, that his father was “a fuck-up” who almost tarnished the family’s name (no further details about the latter dilemma are ever revealed).
We see flashbacks to Will’s 1860s antecedent (most likely played by the same actor but here, too, Levin isn’t telling, not even in the closing credits), who agrees to a top-secret, dangerous plan in exchange for lifelong wealth and inclusion. Then we see this relative getting beat up.
Back in the present day, Will discovers that his former best friend Nick (Alex Breaux, registering like a lankier, even more tormented Paul Dano) is haunted by visions of the same vague Civil War backstory, and spends most nights digging for relics in the hills. Will falls for Nick’s cousin Mary (Emma Duncan), who’s also haunted by hallucinations. Will’s mother doesn’t much like Nick and Mary–their family has history with hers–and she wants to put an end to the former’s night digging. And that’s about it for plot.
The four leads are more than adequate, but they’re so limited by their characters’ close-to-the-vest emotional range that, when one of them explodes in anger, the reaction is unintentional laughter (noone has a lip-twisting, non-verbal freakout that seems to go on forever).
That said, Levin has undeniable talent. With a more invigorating plot and slightly less tongue-tied characters he could easily spin out a chilling thriller, or two, in the future.