After a while away in the big city, Will Shipe (Scott Friend) returns to his hometown in Maryland where his mother Jeanie (Elisabeth Noone) will restore some pride in the family name. Will attempts to reconnect with childhood friend Nick Taylor (Alex Breaux) but Nick is deeply troubled and this will lead Will into a mystery which will unearth long-buried secrets about the area’s dark past…
When the blurb for a movie describes it as “Lynchian” I’m always a little wary of what I might find within. Of course, David Lynch is the master of small town terror and, granted, it can be difficult to watch anything with a strange, rural setting without being reminded of his work but I’m also aware of all that straight-to-video fare which was tagged with “In the tradition of…”. This usually translated to “Pretty much nothing like”.
So, is Union Bridge Lynchian enough? It certainly checks a lot of the boxes, that’s for sure. There’s a sleepy, seemingly normal town which appears to be concealing something horrible. The town has a diner. There are pleasingly composed shots of trees, roads and industrial plants. There’s a potentially supernatural element at play. There’s some random screaming. And there’s a wilfulness to provide little or often absolutely no explanation as to just what is going on.
Writer/director Brian Levin’s atmospheric thriller is a curious one, featuring a lead character who is in much less control of the story – and hence his own destiny – than he initially believes himself to be. Jeanie dismisses Will’s father as a “f*** up” early on in the proceedings and, although Will doesn’t appear to be the disaster his dad was, his attempts to take charge of the situation don’t exactly follow the heroic path you might expect.
Given this, if you’re looking for a square-jawed, no-nonsense hero, Will Shipe is going to annoy the hell out of you. He’s less likely to be keeping an eye on the family business as he is to be with his side quest of getting to know Mary (Emma Duncan), Nick’s cousin and possibly a part-time Wiccan. Again, the story leaves her dabblings in those practices ambiguous.
Union Bridge is successful at creating its eerie, provincial ambience where the town factory’s towers over the place like some vigilant monster and there’s a feeling of not knowing what’s exactly behind the doors of even the most outwardly welcoming of places. It’s creepy without a hint of being overplayed and it’s this facet of the film which is by far the strongest.
In contrast to the emphasis on the feel of the piece, there’s far less focus on the story. In terms of incident, there are far less twists and turns than the initial few minutes suggest. A plot thread concerning the town’s Civil War days is intriguing but it’s given scant time to develop and ultimately it has less impact on the final act than it should.
The performances are in keeping with the low-key nature of the tale and, in the lead, Friend does a fine job at portraying Will’s struggles to integrate himself back into his birthplace without having to resort to the overtly dramatic. Duncan makes for a winning, fragile heroine and Noone gets the spikiest lines as the restrained but formidable matriarch.
If the above sounds like it would float your boat, chances are you’ll have a decent time with this. If not, the sedate pace, the long takes and the frequent pauses in its dialogue all work to frustrate. And if that wasn’t enough, the ending will leave you with far more questions than answers. It doesn’t stop dead, but if you’re waiting for all of those loose ends to be tied up you’re going to be waiting an awfully long time.
As for me, I rather enjoyed being in the world of Union Bridge for ninety minutes, even if the lulls in the action began to test my staying power on occasion. Most of the time, I was happy to wander around the town with the characters, though I’d become accustomed to the fact that both they and the story were going almost nowhere.
It’s the slowest of slow burns and perhaps the denouement doesn’t grip as it ought to but Levin is adept at generating the mood required and the refusal to provide the clearest of resolutions is a bold, divisive decision on his part. It’s arguable as to whether the destination is ultimately worth the trip but there are more than enough interesting detours along the way to make it worthwhile for the more patient traveller.