Monday, October 4, 2010
About a month ago, I saw Ironweed on DVD for the first time. My introduction to the film was at least twelve years ago in a movie theater. Right away, I was reminded of the great performances by Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Tom Waits and Carroll Baker. That and the poetic but sobering atmosphere is why it’s stayed with me since that initial viewing.
There's no getting around the fact that Ironweed is a very sad movie, as well as a beautifully realized character study. As such, the pace is moderately slow but not languid. Jack Nicholson's performance is wonderfully understated. I so much prefer an understated Nicholson. Because when he cuts loose (and he does here, more than once), it hits so much harder. The contrast is stark.
Meryl Streep is her usual brilliant self, infusing her down-in-the-dumps character with several different personalities (she effortlessly glides between friendliness and hostility, usually in very small steps). It all depends on the situation and whoever else might be involved. She's borderline, but she can be solid, too.
So, Jack and Meryl (as Francis Phelan and Helen Archer) more-or-less hang out together, living on the streets of Albany, N.Y, as a freezing cold winter approaches. Francis has been on the bum for some 17 years as he moves around the country. Now he's come back home, which means he'll have to decide how to go about visiting the family he deserted.
While that aspect takes its time to build, Francis has another problem: he's an alcoholic haunted by ghosts from his past. Too frequently for his liking, they appear as a group, all of them accusing Francis of being the instigator of their individual deaths.
These tragic mistakes in his life replay themselves irregularly. His errors weren’t made with deadly intent, but they overwhelm him none-the-less. Francis Phelan lives with an inhuman amount of guilt. He sees these victims in their shiny white state and indulges in accusatory "conversations," filled with rancor, indictment and denial. It's a performance not to be missed.
If you're willing to take the time to become involved with the story at this emotional level, it will get to you ... guaranteed. The best part is that Ironweed is free of heavy-handed manipulation and false sentimentality. These people aren’t angels by any means, but poor choices in combination with the collapse of the economy and just plain bad luck are what led them to their current state. By the time the movie is over, most viewers will feel a genuine and sincere sadness for these people to one degree or another. This is the real deal, folks.
In almost all of her earlier films in the '50s and '60s, Carroll Baker played beautiful, sexy, kittenish and highly desirable characters (they always had an aura of intelligence, too). Here, she’s no different, fitting in very comfortably as the wife Francis left. (She is also definitely older, meaning the sexy bit is out. It wouldn’t have worked in the context of the film, anyway).
Through all of the pain she and the kids suffered due to her husband’s self-banishment, she has every reason to be bitter, resentful and perhaps even furious to know he’s still alive. She’d been badly damaged, to be sure; but by the time of his return all these years later, she’d reached a stage of understanding that takes her (and us) well beyond those raw emotions.
The biggest surprise in the film is a great performance by Tom Waits, in the role of Francis's best buddy. Waits is endearingly likable, sometimes pitiable, as a homeless hobo with a heart; he also happens to be an alcoholic and a junkie.
The director is Hector Babenco, who also directed Pixote and Kiss of the Spider Woman. With that kind of résumé, it should come as no surprise that Ironweed has poignancy by the barrel. With occasional lighter moments (Meryl Streep singing her heart out to a small number of patrons in a bar/lounge is a delight), it succeeds in preventing the audience from becoming morose.
It’s too bad that more people didn’t take the chance to go and see Ironweed when it was first released. As we know, the motion picture business is a slave to box office receipts, and even with such an outstanding cast and director, this one just didn’t make the cut.
The haunting theme stays with you long after the movie runs its course. During the closing credits, those still alert will recognize Meryl Streep, as Helen Archer, is humming along to the moving melody, her slightly off-key yet pleasant voice just barely audible. It is the perfect coda for the film.
For guys who may think this movie isn't for them, ask yourself this question: are you man enough to handle genuine emotions? If the answer is yes, then don't let anyone tell you that Ironweed is a woman's film. To be succinct, it's for anybody who knows himself a little bit and can understand his feelings, both the happy and the sad. This is a people's film.
Word of Advice: Play it safe! Before settling in to watch Ironweed, be sure the phone and other external disturbances are shut down. You won’t want a lot of interruptions as the story plays out. Also, be sure to have a couple of boxes of Kleenex within reach (you may or may not need them). The film is wholly satisfying but you should be prepared; so long as you invest yourself in what you're seeing and feeling, it’ll grab you in places you may not have been grabbed in a long, long time.
Ironweed is highly recommended either in a theater or on a DVD near you.