Incendiary, which stars Michelle Williams and Ewan McGregor (though it shouldn’t be confused with Deception, which came out last year and also starred McGregor and Williams, in addition to Hugh Jackman), is like a weird dream. The kind of dream that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but when you wake up, you’re saddled with a wave of sadness that clings to you for the entire day. No matter what happens, no matter how good a day you’re having, and no matter how many moments of joy you should be experiencing, your subconscious won’t allow happiness, as it continues to wrestle with some unresolved emotional scars that reared themselves during your slumber. But like the dream, Incendiary is a mess of nonsense and impossible to make sense of on its face, but its lack of coherence won’t prevent the emotional ache from welling up inside.
It’s also easy to understand why, despite the remarkable cast, Incendiary went straight-to-DVD. Written and directed by Sharon Maguire — her first work since directing Bridge Jones Diary in 2001 — Incendiary is impossible to label. You’re never quite sure what kind of film it is. Framed around a letter to Osama Bin Laden, Michelle Williams plays a Young Mother. She adores her four-year-old son, but she seems bored in her marriage to a bomb expert. One night at a bar, she meets Jasper Black (McGregor), a journalist for a London newspaper. They have sex. The next day, they have sex again, while Young Mother’s husband and son are at a soccer match. At this point, it feels like Incendiary could be another Unfaithful, a soft-core adultery porn designed to keep teenagers awake until 3 a.m. watching Skinemax (and yes: There’s nudity aplenty). But mid-coitus, the Mother looks over on the television and sees a terrorist bomb go off in the soccer stadium, killing both her husband and son.
So, it’s a movie about grief and guilt, right? Sort of. After the bombing, the narrative turns toward Terrance (Mathew Macfadyen), another bomb expert and a colleague of the dead husband. He’s in love with the mother. Meanwhile, as that relationship begins to take shape, Jasper gets a little stalkery with the mother while also investigating the terrorist bombing. So, it’s a stalker thriller, right? No. Not at all. “Young Mother” also finds out who the wife and son of the terrorist bomber are, and becomes obsessed with them, particularly the son. But then she hallucinates her own son back into existence, and the entire movie just spirals into knots and frayed ends without any satisfying resolution. But then again, it’s difficult to understand what needs to be resolved because nothing really makes sense. There’s no narrative arc, no real story, just a series of circumstances that the mother has to cope with.
And yet, thanks mostly to a remarkably powerful performance by Michelle Williams, Incendiary’s last act is fiercely moving. It’s a forceful mediation on bereavement and the human struggle it takes to power through the death of a child, and despite the failings of everything else in the movie, Williams is so convincing that it’s hard not to watch her onscreen and feel your heart break in three. It’s difficult to assess what Incendiary is trying to say; there’s no logic to wrap your brain around. But, your subconscious will ache for Williams’ performance, and though you won’t properly understand why, sadness will cling to you well after the movie has ended.