Directed by Hector Babenco
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 143 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo English
Subtitles: English, Spanish
MSRP: $ 14.98
Release Date: February 24, 2009
Review Date: February 20, 2009
Hector Babenco’s Ironweed is a sour, unremitting downer. Most of the characters are alcoholic bums and drifters; the look and tone of the film is relentlessly dour. Yet despite this, it’s a fascinating character study made memorable through superb acting, direction that captures and look and feel of a specific time and place, and an uncompromising focus on the tragic and tragically noble whom most of us would never bother to look at twice.
Ironweed recounts two days (in some cases the last two days) in the lives of several down-and-outers in Albany, NY, in 1938. Francis Phelan (Jack Nicholson) has come home after an absence of twenty-two years. He’s a hopeless drunk whose life was ruined when he dropped his weeks-old son on the kitchen floor instantly killing him. Now scrounging for money as a grave digger or a ragbone peddler’s assistant, he stumbles around town seeking food and shelter where he can find it and searching for Helen Archer (Meryl Streep), his sometime companion of nine years, a one-time radio singer and pianist who’s also become a hopeless drunk. Both alcoholics are afflicted with the D.T’s causing them to recount in a series of visions either moments from their pasts or hallucinations of what’s happening in the present.
William Kennedy has adapted his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for the screen, and he’s been remarkably faithful (if exceedingly pedantic) with the script fashioning a scenario that really doesn‘t do justice to Helen‘s character by forcing her into the film in near-equal importance to Francis without the involved backstory that would aid the viewer in being more sympathetic to her plight. With the character of Francis, however, he’s been true to the story, a basically good man cursed by a series of bad luck accidents into guilting himself into wasting his life. Hector Babenco has directed some excruciatingly moving scenes with both of his stars which give the movie its heart. Nicholson’s reunion with the family he long ago abandoned isn’t played for pathos, but their pleasure in his return (except for a recalcitrant daughter who’s still nursing bitterness over his abandonment of them) is achingly real. So is a nightmarish raid on Shantytown by local authorities where the cancer-stricken Rudy (Tom Waits) is at the mercy of the thuggish vigilantes, relying on the inebriated Francis to protect him.
The highlights of the picture, however, belong to Meryl Streep and likely are what garnered for her yet another Oscar nomination. In a giddy state from too much wine, she agrees to sing an old pub tune from her radio days, the Irish rouser “He’s Me Pal.” She works the room like a trouper selling the song with the moxie of a great entertainer, her husky alto sliding through the refrains with a brio that leads to a standing ovation. Alas, the wine has gotten the best of her as the real-life reaction of the crowd comes clearly back into focus. Later, she stumbles into a music shop in her ratty clothes and proceeds to chase off a potential customer by sitting at the piano and playing a lilting tune beautifully. But we’re tricked again by the director. This time, it’s not a hallucination. The candle of her gift flares briefly one last time before it’s extinguished.
Jack Nicholson also earned an Oscar nomination for his role in the film, and between scenes of tender reconciliation with his family and angry combativeness to the ghosts of his past who are always with him, he certainly deserved the recognition. Carroll Baker lends sturdy support as the wife he long ago left behind. Diane Venora makes her stab at anger as the daughter left but not forgotten with Michael O’Keefe pleasing but underused as her more understanding husband. Fred Gwynne as a singing bartender, Nathan Lane as a streetcar conductor who was Francis’ earliest victim, and Tom Waits as the pitiably dying Rudy round out a superb cast.
The film has been brought to DVD in a disappointing open matte transfer in the 1.33:1 ratio. Lauro Escorel’s sepia-tinged cinematography comes through distinctively though sharpness is usually only average or slightly above, burdened by the lack of anamorphic enhancement. There are dust specks and some noisy pixilation throughout the film, too, which also momentarily distract. On the other hand, blacks are notably deep, and shadow detail is better than expected. The film has been divided into 12 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio track is very effective with dialog rooted to the center channel and some impressive spread of music and sound effects (applause, train engines, angry crowds) in the left and right front channels. Bass can be overly aggressive in some moments throwing the balance way off, but for a basically barebones release, the audio was more vivid than I expected it to be.
The disc offers a stills gallery set to some of John Morris’ lovely background score that scrolls through nineteen black and white stills without requiring viewer interaction.
The disc offers previews of The Lucky Ones, Everybody Wants to Be Italian, The Red Violin, and Diva.
A relentlessly tragic character study that’s not for all tastes, Ironweed features brilliant performances and a caustic look at some of life’s losers without an ounce of sentimentality. The DVD isn’t a worthy representation of the film’s art, but it’s likely the only one we’re ever going to get.