'Union Bridge': Film Review

Courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures
A bridge too far.
5/15/2020

A man discovers hidden secrets from the past after returning to his Southern hometown in Brian Levin's debut feature.

Brian Levin's debut feature is being billed as a Southern Gothic thriller, but only the first part of the description applies for this effort that gives new meaning to the expression "slow burn." Heavy on foreboding atmosphere but light on narrative momentum, character development and thematic coherence, Union Bridge requires considerable patience to cross.

Set in the titular Maryland town near the Mason Dixon line, the plot, such as it is, concerns the return of upper-class local boy Will Shipe (Scott Friend, Fourteen) after years of living in "the city." The reason for Will's return is never made clear (nor is nearly anything else in the film), although it's hinted that he experienced some sort of burnout.

The townspeople greet Will warmly enough, even if a few of them make fun behind his back over his privileged upbringing. His grandfather was governor of the state, and a factory bearing his family name seems to be the area's chief industry.

Shortly after his arrival, Will reunites with his old friend Nick (Alex Breaux, Netflix's When They See Us), who seems to have become mentally unhinged during his pal's absence, as evidenced by his habit of wandering on the outskirts of town every night digging for Confederate gold that he's seen in mysterious visions. Nick's officious mother (Elisabeth Noone), who makes clear that she expects her son to resume his privileged place in the town's social hierarchy, implores him to talk Nick out of his nocturnal excursions, which she hints will lead to the revelation of dark family secrets.

Another main plot element involves Will's burgeoning romance with Nick's cousin Mary (Emma Duncan), who has started dabbling in a form of witchcraft since his departure. But like everything else in the film, the storyline doesn't lead anywhere particularly interesting. At one point, the couple are shown in a lengthy montage featuring them feeding various farm animals and delightedly observing an elaborate model train setup. The sequence is so divorced from the film's otherwise somber tone that you expect to hear "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" playing on the soundtrack.

To compensate for the lack of substance, writer-director Levin infuses the proceedings with moodily atmospheric visuals and a jarring musical score dominated by screeching strings. But while the cinematography by Sebastian Slayter proves one of the stronger technical elements, its impact becomes mitigated by shots that go on forever for little reason. There's no sense of pacing whatsoever, with the result that long stretches go by with nothing happening and scenes seem to have little reason for being. Periodically, there are brief flashback sequences set during the Civil War, setting up the central mystery at the story's core. But they, too, barely make much of an impression.

The overall effect is frustrating, because the performances are generally solid (Breaux delivers a strikingly intense turn as the obsessed Nick) and one can sense the intriguing kernel of an idea that could have proved more successful if the execution had been less tenuous. In the press notes, the filmmaker expresses his admiration for the work of such directors as Terrence Malick, Michelangelo Antonioni and David Lynch, among others, and you can feel him straining here for a similar air of languid mystery. Unfortunately, he places too much emphasis on languid, making the film's 91-minute running time feel much, much longer. By the time Union Bridge reaches its would-be cathartic conclusion, you're left mainly wondering why you should care.

Distributor: Breaking Glass Pictures (Available on VOD)
Cast: Scott Friend, Emma Duncan, Alex Breaux, Elisabeth Noone
Director-screenwriter: Brian Levin
Producers: Lucie Elwes, Brian Levin
Director of photography: Sebastian Slayter
Production designers: Katy Hallowell, Oscar Tine

Costume designer: Julie Bennett
Editor: Nick Kovacic
Composers: Chris Retsina, Caleb Stine, Turner Curran
Casting: Kate Geller, Pat Moran

91 minutes