The Ascent is a Refreshing Gem in a Genre Weighed Down by Formulaic Flicks
written by Mahdis Marzooghian
I’ll be honest - I dived into The Ascent not really expecting much. Like a lot of recent low-budget thrillers, I was hoping (at most) for a watered-down and predictable B-level crime movie. But this indie film, with a reported budget of only $15,000, genuinely surprised me and held my full attention until the end credits.
Writer-director Tom Murtagh’s unassuming 2017 cop flick, starring Miguel Pérez, Stephen Buchanan, and Amber Waller, starts off like most — with an interrogation and a classic good-cop, bad-cop routine. Miguel Pérez plays good cop and veteran LAPD detective, Henry Cardenas, who is one suspect confession shy of breaking a police department record. In short, he’s really good at what he does. But like most brilliant cop tropes, he’s divorced, unhealthy, keeps to himself, and doesn’t like media attention.
One night, he comes across a murder suspect that proves to be a harder nut to crack than any of his previous cases, of which there have been many. Enter quick-witted murder suspect Vincent Marins, who is taken into custody with Cardenas as lead detective. As Cardenas musters his every skill and trick to get something out of Marins, it becomes clear that there’s a lot more to this supposedly “open and shut” case than they initially thought.
First off, Marins expertly avoids answering most of the detective’s questions and instead starts making some bizarre claims, beginning with him never sleeping, speaking a number of languages including Aramaic, and ending with him being a fallen angel. And not just any fallen angel, but Lucifer’s “kid brother.” What’s more, we find out Vince is an aspiring actor and has a side hustle called Hollywood Skateboard Tours. If that doesn’t suck you in right away, I don’t know what will. Fallen angel or not, Vince Marins is a charismatic enigma; he’s one of those characters you root for right away no matter if they’re good or bad because they’re just so much fun to watch. Buchanan portrays Vince Marins flawlessly and steals every scene he’s in.
It’s important to mention that the film starts off with narration about a mysterious character, a singer and star on the rise named Laura Maldonado (Anisha Adusumilli), who was brutally murdered years ago. In fact, her murder is compared to the famous Black Dahlia murder and thus nicknamed the “Brown Dahlia.” But there’s one glaring difference: where there was a body in the murder of Elizabeth Short, no body was ever found in Laura Maldonado’s murder. Throughout the movie, I kept trying to connect the frequent snippets and flashbacks of Laura’s story to the present case at hand. What did any of this have to do with Vince Marins allegedly murdering a girl named Olivia? But there’s really no figuring it out until the shocking reveal near the end.
As the movie progresses, there’s increasing focus on Cardenas and Marins. The acting of both Pérez and Buchanan blew me away and more than made up for the lukewarm attempts of Sam Rodd, who played Pérez’s partner Frank Oslo, and Amber Waller, who played the role of the amateur journalist slash cocktail waitress Regina Parker.
Obviously, Cardenas (and surely the audience) doubts Marins’ claims at first, chalking it up to this guy being a cheeky smooth-talker. Or maybe even a sociopath. But as the movie progresses, more and more of what he claims starts adding up as certain events come to light. Meanwhile, Regina Parker, who Frank introduces at the beginning of the movie, is interested in doing a profile piece on the reluctant Cardenas. We expect him to blow her off right then and there, but he eventually concedes and allows her to oversee the unfolding case on camera while the bumbling Frank has to go home due to marital issues. Considering how hard he was flirting with Parker, we didn’t see that one coming.
Writer-director Tom Murtagh’s cleverly crafted narrative doesn't reveal its winning hand until the final moments. There’s consistent tension throughout the film and although it’s mostly dialogue-driven, it does not bore and is an effective driving force of the film, with some shrewd, meta-esque humor and philosophical reflections peppered throughout. I will say, however, that a few of the scenes, like the “elevator” scene, did feel a bit cheesy and superfluous, almost like hitting the nail on the head a little too hard, but I guess it was needed for further dramatic effect. Overall, The Ascent is a breath of fresh air in a genre that has lately felt bogged down by predictable movies often following the same formula. The overall acting, writing, and pacing are masterfully done, with a story that stings you into attention like a swarm of locusts and stays with you long after it’s over.