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Never the timing for a movie had been so disastrous.Released in those
"glorious " eighties when the success stories and the triumphalist
heroes were the golden rule,"Ironweed" stood no chance at all.Two
tramps did not fit well in the movie landscape of those "feel good"
times.And two tramps played by two megastars ,it was unforgivable!
The cast is stellar,but it's Meryl Streep whom I will remember FOREVER.When she sings her little tune "he's me pal" she's so heart-wrenching that she will move you to tears."At least ,I didn't betray anybody" she said.Although it was a colossal flop,Streep would only approach such an emotion afterwards.(notably in "the bridges of Madison County")Nicholson was equally courageous to play such a demeaning part,and he gets strong support from Carroll Baker who proves here she can age gracefully and from Tom Waits ,ideally cast as a barfly.
"Ironweed" is very hard to see nowadays.One of these days ,it will be given the place it deserves.
Cold, desolate in the surface and an uncomfortable warmth in the inside. Meryl Streep leads in a way that is difficult to explain. She provides a truly magic movie moment when she sings "He's My Pal" for her supper. For a moment we live her fantasy. Her moment is our moment, that's why as the song and the fantasy ends something inside me cracked. I felt tears running down my face and, I swear, I wasn't ready for that. The humanity of Meryl Streep, the actress, filters through the devastating circumstances of her character. Circumstances that, by the time we meet her, are already a way of life. At the beginning of the film, when somebody asks her how is she, her reply is "Delightful". Trying to adjust to this character I listen to her stained, tired voice, trying to be heard and I did, heard her. I love Meryl Streep.
Have you ever wondered what's it's like to be homeless? To most of us, it's
as foreign an existence as the medieval world of Hugh Capet. And yet, it's
a way of life that's within reach of all of us. And I'm not talking about
its physical proximity, about the unfortunates we pass on the streets with
their bed rolls on their backs: on the contrary, I'm referring to its
spiritual, psychological proximity, to all the rest of us, who, given the
right circumstances, could give up on our cheery Western materialist society
and wander off into the shadows.
Ironweed takes its viewers into that shadowy world of the rail yards, cardboard shantytowns, underpasses, and abandoned automobiles, and shows us incisive glimpses of how a person arrives there. Featuring what I think are the very best performances by Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, Ironweed gets us deep into the sooty, grimy, bilious skin of the two `hobos.' Like Schindler's List, Ironweed is dark poetry. When the movie is over, you're haunted for days by the imagery.
Set in Albany during the Great Depression, Ironweed delivers not an ounce of moralizing. It's like a clinical exposition of the homeless person's entire life, both from without, and within. On the outside, of course, there's the Depression: a society doing the best it can to get by. From the `hobo's' point of view, one feels the implicit violence of a culture taught to view others as economic instruments of their own survival. The homeless, of course, are on the bottom end of the food chain. On the inside, Ironweed takes us into the intense pain of dashed hopes and expectations. From within and without, the homeless are caught in a whirling vortex that only grinds them down deeper and deeper into despair, the type that Kierkegaard's describes in `Sickness unto Death.' It's where intense poverty is not just physical, but spiritual.
This is a terrific movie; but, it's not for the faint of heart.
_Ironweed_ haunts for a long time after viewing, so be prepared. I also
suggest that you be employed while you view this one.
William Kennedy's novel was an extreme work of beauty, and as much as I enjoyed and respected the novel, I never dreamed a film version could surpass it. In some ways at least, I believe this film does. Streep is luminous, no small feat while playing a drunk (they weren't called "homeless people" back then). And although he's proved it again since, this was the first time most of us saw Nicholson act. Tom Waits is terrific and gritty, Carroll Baker comes out of semi-retirement as though this was the one role she had left in her to play, and mixes pain and determination in just the right quantities.
Babenco clearly had a vision, and displays a maturity I hadn't expected from him. Even the score, a couple of tunes used over the opening and closing credits will make your heart ache.
It's all pathos, and it's all good. Grab it while you can -- I had to go to Canada and get a used copy online to find it at all. It was worth it.
There are many reasons why this film is a masterpiece, but the most
significant element is surely Streep's portrayal of a homeless alcoholic in
1930's Albany. Her appearance, about half an hour into the film, is quite
frankly, astonishing. She walks into a soup kitchen and sits down next to
Nicholson and your jaw drops at the transformation. Beyond the technical
virtuosity, you marvel at the choices that Streep makes that express the
character so movingly, from the vocal production which is almost like a
groan of pain, to the body language including her constantly averted
glance and shuffling walk which express the woman's lost self esteem, to her
bursts of rage when we see the glimmer of the spirit she once posessed.
There's a scene in a bar in which she sings for the patrons that you will
Every other element of the film succeeds: the other performances (Nicholson, Tom Waits and Carol Baker stand out), the production design recreating a vanished era flawlessly without resorting to the phony perfection of say a Merchant Ivory film, the sound design which is surprisingly complex for such an intimate film, the screenplay, the cinematography, the direction. How is it that Hector Babenco has only made two films since this one?
As a boomer myself, this movie made me recall my uncles from my
mother's side of the family -- men from the wrong side of the tracks
who were scarred by the Depression. I anticipate that others in my age
group will share my sense of deja vu.
The story is sad, yet in these heartless modern times, when families eat their prepackaged dinners in separate rooms, watching TV or surfing the Web, the viewer feels nostalgia even for the Depression because experiences were shared deeply with others.
This film is about loss -- loss of family and of love -- and about the hard times that made these heartbreaks even more wrenching. The Depression has been portrayed more accurately here than in any movie in my memory.
The writing is exemplary, as is the set design and camera work. But it's the the performances that shine brightest. Not only those of Nicholson and Streep, from whom you expect greatness (this movie was shot before Nicholson started playing himself). Watch for stunning vignettes by Tom Waits, who can act far better than he can sing, and a show-stopper by the fine character actor Jake Dengel.
In our postliterate time, when attempts at drama come off more like caricatures, and people's ability to relate to each other is only Blackberry-deep, the experience of watching a film about the human experience as it used to be is one to be treasured.
Jack Nicholson usually relies on his quirky mannerisms and catch phrases; in
this movie he shows his acting talents in a more serious manner. This movie
is a brutal look at street people in the late 1930s. Meryl Streep immerses
herself into her part as usual. This movie is harsh, cold and depressing.
And the running time almost pushes two and a half hours long. I honestly
don't know what they could have left out to make it shorter. Once is enough
for this one. It will take a while for you to get your mind off of the
abundance of hardship and sadness.
Nicholson and Streep are joined with a solid, diverse cast that includes Carroll Baker, Michael O'Keefe, Tom Waits, Nathan Lane and Fred Gwynne.
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.
"Ironweed" is a good movie and a scathing indictment of life in modern
America. Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep effectively portray a pair of
homeless bums on the cold late October streets of Albany, New York
during the Great Depression. Their day to day existence revolves around
simple survival in the most difficult of circumstances -- how to keep
from going hungry, where to score a few hours work or a few drinks, and
where to "flop" come nightfall in order to avoid being beaten and
robbed or freezing to death. You don't have to be a bum to understand
this list of priorities, although certainly, spending any time without
a conventional home will clue you in like nothing else can. There are,
you see, several levels of homelessness, street people of various kinds
occupying the lowest tier. A level above that are the people who live
in their cars, camping at the curb or crashing with friends, some of
them duly employed while others are "between jobs." Then there are
those who spend months or even years living in recreational vehicles of
one sort or another and migrating with the seasons. These are the elite
of the homeless crowd, ranging from truly adventurous souls who
occasionally go without enough food to those with substantial bank
accounts and second homes. Nonetheless, most if not all of them
understand something about being kicked around and shown the door, just
like the bums in this flick. Certainly, they all understand what its
like on occasion not to know where you will end up spending the night,
why authority figures are to be avoided, and why conventional people
are nearly always the enemy, whether they know it or not.
"Ironweed" puts a human face on the kinds of people society scorns the most -- street people, who live in filth and seldom wash, who often abuse alcohol or drugs yet haven't enough to eat and may dig through garbage searching for an abandoned morsel. They often live this way for a reason and not only because they have no choice. Frank has a choice but he is convinced that to go home "won't work out." He's a luckier bum than his fellows, who seem to have no choice at all. Oddly, it's pride just as much as eccentricity, incipient insanity, or alcoholism that keeps them where they are. Helen was a successful singer before her life went on the skids. Too much wine, a slump in her career, and being robbed of her inheritance seemed to signal her inevitable slide into oblivion. Now she barks at passersby and sleeps with whomever will tolerate her presence -- at a price, of course. Sandra is a drunk, an ex-whore, and in terrible shape when the others discover her passed out against a lamppost in freezing weather. They get her a blanket and some hot soup and prop her against a wall, but obviously, she is not long for this world. Rudy's a good sport, a bum's true friend, and he just scored a new gray suit, but he's been given six months to live and soon enough his new threads are grimy and tattered, just like the old ones. And so goes it. Only the strongest survive. All the while the comfortable bourgeoisie look upon the suffering of these brave souls with contempt, disgust, and often, unbridled hostility, hoping to avoid them and occasionally making them pay dearly for the inconvenience. Although the bums seem to scurry at the margins of society like rats on the prowl for scraps, they are, in a way, truly living. For however unenviable their precarious lot may be, they are on the edge, so unlike the predictable, dull, and hypocritical existence of the conventional folk around them. At times, one either knows or suspects that the bums are being romanticized or their foibles somewhat exaggerated, but nonetheless, the story comes off as reasonably authentic. And the acting in it is superb. One criticism, however -- the soft focus effect throughout. I take it the director was attempting to blur further the distinction between fantasy and reality, posing as it did a continuing problem for the main characters, who often dreamed of some simple connection to dignity, comfort, and security while in the throes of their unrelenting misery. Nonetheless, I would have preferred a sharp focus. Otherwise, I found this flick to be very inspired.
Given that we often hear a rather idealized version of the Great
Depression - it seems like some people go so far as to treat it as the
"good old days" - it's important to understand just what things were
like back then. Hector Babenco's ultra-downer "Ironweed" does that.
Jack Nicholson plays drifter Francis Phelan, who returns to his home
town (where he hasn't been in years) and traipses around it, seeing the
poverty prevalent throughout the Depression. He deals with his own
demons and sees whether or not he can start up a new life. But he can't
escape the reality of the status quo, or of his own past.
Watching this movie, you may feel like you've just been drug through a gutter. But one must wonder how much better things are nowadays. For how terrible the Depression was, it helped our country understand not only abject poverty, but what caused the Depression. In this era of air-heads slacking off and using as many resources as possible, I wonder whether or not we might be headed towards a new kind of Depression. If so, then the movie warned us.
Anyway, I recommend this movie, but understand that it's a total downer. Also starring Meryl Streep, Carroll Baker, Michael O'Keefe, Diane Venora, Fred Gwynne, Tom Waits and Nathan Lane.
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