A neo-noir southern gothic directorial debut that delivers overwhelmingly on its foreboding sense of surreal dread, but underwhelmingly on its narrative substance in this slow-burn film. First-time writer-director Brian Levin showcases his command of atmosphere and world-building, but his screenplay lacks focus and direction. Levin certainly demonstrates his keen eye for crafting a haunting ambiance in the vein of David Lynch, but the overall experience suffers diegetically. While the premise is intriguing, the plot is all over the place. Following the central character who has returned to his hometown from the big city, the audience is taken on a surreal psychological journey into the darker side of this otherwise wholesome-looking town. Unfortunately, this journey lacks a destination and ultimately leaves the audience wondering why they should care about anything that happens in the film. Levin’s debut feature strikes the right tone for a neo-noir that teeters towards thriller-adjacency; but despite thriller being in the billing, it never quite reaches that goal. Perhaps screenwriting is not Levin’s strong suit; that said, there is much to be admired in his endeavor. All the mise en scene elements work together seamlessly to create an atmosphere that stimulates the senses and draws you in from the moment that the film opens. Union Bridge has everything else going for it in terms of casting, cinematography, score, editing, and production quality. Which tells me that Levin has what it takes to craft a visually compelling story for the screen, but needs to leave the writing to someone else. Should he pair up with a screenwriter that has a penchant for neo-noir or horror next time, then it is entirely possible that we may be having a different discussion.
Will Shipe (Scott Friend), the scion of a powerful family living near the Mason Dixon line, moves back home after years in the big city. His old friend Nick (Alex Breaux), who still lives in town, is feverishly digging in the land because of a vision he can’t escape. What is buried in this small town and the events around it have repercussions that effect many people. Most of all, Will Shipe, and the past and future of his legacy. Assisted by his high school sweetheart Mary (Emma Duncan), Will must uncover the long-kept family secrets buried beneath the fields of his hometown.
If you go into this expecting a southern gothic thriller, you will be disappointed. Not because it doesn’t feel like a gothic horror, but because it never delivers on the thrill. There really isn’t any suspense either, by Hitchcock definition, because the audience is never supplied with information. Incidentally, the audience will be desperately seeking information to make some sense of what is happening on screen. Levin introduces and sets up some potentially juicy plot devises and backstory, but never revisits any of them in a manner that pays off at any level. We never figure out what the family’s dark secret is, why Will has to return to his hometown (tho, it’s vaguely hinted at), or why Will’s mom’s despises her late husband. Will’s childhood sweetheart is said to be practicing a form of witchcraft, but Levin goes nowhere with that either. The family’s and town’s past and present are only connected because we are, in not so many words, told they are. So many ideas for a southern gothic thriller, but they come off as more of a stream of consciousness or outline than a coherent narrative. Even the romance between Mary and Will goes nowhere of particular interest. And when Will’s childhood friend Nick (spoiler alert) dies, you simply won’t care. This film deeply desires for you to give yourself over to it, but you won’t form an emotional connection with any aspect to the story. Perhaps this “story” can be characterized as the plot to nowhere–speaking of which–I’m still wondering where the “bridge” in the title even comes from; there is simply no bridge, past or present, in this landlocked town.
Okay, now that I got all the negative out of the way, I want to spend time on highlighting what I enjoyed in this picture. I’m often hesitant to be too professor-y or critical with a directorial debut, because I commend anyone, who for the first time, sets out to make a picture and get it distributed. So, I offer congratulations on a job well-done to Mr. Levin on completing something he set out to do. Thousands of people set out to shoot films that are often left incomplete for one reason or another. Where this film fails to deliver is the story–and no mistaking it–that is HUGE; however, Levin can use this as a learning opportunity that teaches him that he has director chops, not necessarily screenwriting chops. Should he choose to work with a different screenwriter, other than himself the next time, then he has what it takes to guide the production from page to screen.
I am a fan of David Lynch, and Muholland Drive and the TV show Twin Peaks are among my favorites of his. Even without knowing from press materials that Levin is also a fan of Lynch, I knew it within with first five minutes of the film. The cinematography, editing, and score are all reminiscent of Lynch, specifically Twin Peaks. Levin successfully blends the macabre and mundane nature of this town in a manner that reveals that the former is contained within the latter. Furthermore, Levin crafts an atmosphere that is familiar yet foreign to Will, and by extension, the audience. Although this story feels like it should have taken place in Georgia or South Carolina, the settings in Maryland were ideally suited for Union Bridge. The factories represent the past whereas Will represents the future (or let’s be real, the present), much in the same way that his mother lives in the past, and resists living in the present. When the past and present come face to face, the blurred area between the two is where this nightmare resides. Levin’s talent for direction is also witnessed in the actors’ performances. All the performances are generally fantastic, especially Breaux’s character of Nick. Each character is right out of a Lynchian film, and works perfectly in Levin’s surreal Maryland town. There are some beautiful nuances to the technical elements that work together to create this idyllic setting surrounded by an emanation of dread. Atmospherically, Levin knows precisely what to do, and I hope to see more of his craft paired with a better story in the future.
Union Bridge is available on a streaming service near you.
Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in the Tampa area, feel free to catch a movie with him!