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Albany, New York, Halloween, 1938. Francis Phelan and Helen Archer are bums, back in their birth city. She was a singer on the radio, he a major league pitcher. Death surrounds them: she's sick, a pal has cancer, he digs graves at the cemetery and visits the grave of his infant son whom he dropped; visions of his past haunt him, including ghosts of two men he killed. That night, out drinking, Helen tries to sing at a bar. Next day, Fran visits his wife and children and meets a grandson. He could stay, but decides it's not for him. Helen gets their things out of storage and finds a hotel. Amidst their mistakes and dereliction, the film explores their code of fairness and loyalty. Written by
a bleak vision of depression-era America, which means its honest to start
Ironweed is the kind of film that pierces right through my senses, to the point where I'm left to no other alternative but to sob at the end of it all. I felt that at the end of such films as Requiem for a Dream, Mystic River, United 93, and a good few Bergman works. Ironweed, as with those films, doesn't cheat the audience with anything that seems dishonest. Even the schizophrenia (if that is what it is definitively) that Francis (Nicholson) has throughout where he sees visions of all the dead that he either caused- in self-defense or otherwise- or saw happen, doesn't have that kitschy sentimental beat to it. This goes without saying it won't be for all moviegoers, and the most recent DVD release is misleading: we see Nicholson's trademark grin, as if this might be a *cheerful* movie about those in even deeper squalor than most in 1938 Albany, New York.
Sure, there might be a few lines here or there that bring a chuckle, like a line Francis has about needing turkey since he has no duck. But for the most part this is a drama that is deep into its artistic intentions to be frank with the story at hand. Director Babilco doesn't shy away with his camera from the material in William Kennedy's script, and neither do the cast. A good thing to: there needs to be a formidable handle on the pain and misery that Francis, Helen (Streep), and Rudy (Waits) have to deal with every day and especially at night. They could die any moment- Rudy reveals that he has terminal cancer almost with a strange, ambiguous grin (which, coming from Waits, has a lot of meaning to that)- but there's just enough hope with whatever few bucks can come around.
If for no other reason should you see the film it's for the cast, as it's above all else an actor's film. While the director and writer have their immense contributions to the proceedings (the direction is patient, sometimes tense, occasionally even poetic even with the slightly sappy music score, and the writing is not compromised in the adaptation from Pulitzer prize winning source), Nicholson, Streep, and everybody all make this a vital and potent take on those, ultimately, marginalized. Whether Streep or Nicholson take more of the meaty drama for their characters can be debated till dawn's break, but if I did have to really choose I'd say Nicholson was greater, one of the high points in a career chock full of them. Perhaps he does have more though to have a hold of; Streep's Helen has a background of a failed pianist career, odd ties to those still in Albany, and a perpetual self-hatred. It goes without saying she carries her end of the log well as the star-cum-lumberjack, particularly in a perfect scene in the midway through involving a song in a bar.
But with Francis Nicholson goes into real "actor" mode (i.e. Passenger, Cuckoo's Nest, Chinatown, Carnal Knowledge), delving into this man who has many past ghosts, from his crimes of passion to his ultimate sin involving his baby's death. Any thoughts that Nicholson can't get into sorrow, regret, and ultimately a form of madness, and yes even tears, can be squashed watching this. But at the same time is he forceful and intense in handling the regret and anger Francis has, there's also great subtlety, underplaying it just enough for what the scenes often require, which is subtext, such as the scenes at her old family's house where what isn't spoken speaks even more than what is. Throw in some extra supporting work that clicks excellently, such as a possible best-yet Tom Waits performance, a singing Ed Gwynn, and Diane Verona among others, and it's assuredly one of the best crops of performances in 80s American film. It deserves, some twenty years or so later, to get rediscovered.
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