Early on in David Cronenberg’s “Crash,” two characters lock eyes across the crumpled hoods of their cars after a head-on collision. A strange transference occurs, partly sexual and partly about a different kind of intimacy, one that comes from a shared proximity to death. Actress Antonia Campbell-Hughes’ intriguing, evocative directorial debut “It Is in Us All” takes a similar moment as the catalyst for a moody, existential drama that may not be about car-crash fetishes but features no less peculiar, no less disturbing psychologies, fused imperfectly together in one violent instant on a lonely Donegal road.
The two strangers connected by the lethal accident are Evan (Rhys Mannion), the 17-year-old local who escapes unharmed while his friend is killed, and Hamish (Cosmo Jarvis), the urbane London professional on his way to check out the house bequeathed to him by his late aunt. Evan will later suggest the crash was predestined, but initially for Hamish, who keeps reducing his injuries to “just a fracture,” and who is not being held responsible for the accident, it is little more than a tragic inconvenience. He video-calls his father (a barely recognizable Claes Bang) who lives in Hong Kong and runs the production company at which Hamish also works, and brushes off his concerns in a way that suggests their relationship is as distant emotionally as it is geographically.
Already by now, in the glowering asymmetries of DP Piers McGrail’s elegant, grave cinematography and in the faraway drones of Tom Furse’s ominous score, we’ve picked up on Hamish’s bone-deep loneliness. His inability to connect with people on ordinary terms first manifests in the opening scene when he responds to the friendly flirtations of the car rental attendant (a terrific little cameo from Pauline Hutton) with a scorn that makes the poor woman practically shrivel into herself. Perhaps this everyday alienation is one reason why he bonds with Evan in that most extraordinary, most un-everyday moment. Whatever the case, their uncanny attachment is enough for Hamish to keep Evan’s secret: that it was he, and not the dead, 15-year-old Callum, who was driving.
Hamish checks himself out of the hospital and goes to the house where he discovers little clues to the life his deceased mother left behind when she married his dad. It’s a life that it becomes increasingly clear Hamish feels he has been cheated out of, an impression enhanced by a couple of anguished, unsettling encounters with Callum’s grief-stricken mother (Campbell-Hughes) — notably the only recurring female character in a movie about men deprived of feminine influence.
Evan develops a metaphysically tinged crush on Hamish. And while Hamish’s feelings in return are not necessarily sexual, there is still something faintly predatory about their burgeoning relationship. Tagging along to beachside bonfires with Evan’s friends, meeting his silent grandfather in the clinically clean farm/abattoir where he works, moshing with him madly in the red flashing strobes of an eerily deserted techno dancehall, Hamish seems partly to be living out some ghost version of his own adolescence — perhaps the one he might have had if his mother had settled with him here, as she had once tried to do, away from the wintry influence of his father.
As a debuting director, Campbell-Hughes proves she has style to burn, building a doomy, stomach-churn atmosphere of incipient disaster in which the bleak beauty of this isolated part of Ireland becomes a character all of its own. But as a screenwriter she is not yet quite as accomplished. When it comes time for the story to resolve, and for all the volcanic masculine menace in the air to sublimate into tangible drama, the eruption is an anticlimax. We’re left feeling that perhaps the taciturn screenplay gives so little away not because it is building toward major insight, but because it ultimately has little to give.
Still, Jarvis’ tectonic performance remains fascinating, with the actor’s singular mixture of imposing physical presence and wounded reticence suiting the enigmatic vibe while giving it an edge of threateningly broken, hulking masculinity. Part city-slicker-sophisticate, part Golem, Jarvis’ Hamish may be sinking into the past like the land itself is pulling damply at his heels, but it’s because of the demons he brought with him, and it’s difficult to think of many actors who could bring that same sense of inner collapse, like there’s a black hole located somewhere in his midriff. If as a thriller, the cryptic “It Is in Us All,” doesn’t thrill quite enough, as an examination of the kind of perverse death-obsession that unloved, unhappy, estranged boys can develop, it is a darkly provocative and promising debut mood-piece from Campbell-Hughes. Perhaps it takes a woman to be this curious and cool an observer of the mysteries and miseries of men.