It is 1986 and Brazilian filmmaker Hector Babenco is on top of the world. His previous effort, 1985's Kiss of the Spider Woman, has just been nominated for four Oscars (including a nod for the director himself) and in combination with his reputation for such homegrown hits as Pixote, he's poised to become a major Hollywood player. For his next project, he has A-lit heavyweights Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep lined up and is about to adapt William Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel about Depression era alcoholics. Though Spider Woman would only earn a single Academy Award, this latest effort has future trophy fodder written all over it. Sadly, the following year would see Ironweed virtually shut out in all categories except acting, and after the bomb that was At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Babenco would return to South America, making only three other films in the next 18 years. Oh course, it was an unfortunate battle with cancer, not the failure of Ironweed, that sidetracked his creative output. But thanks to Lionsgate unfathomably awful DVD take on this title, we can see how, even at the height of his powers, Babenco miscalculated his newfound creative carte blanche.
It's 1938, and American is still struggling through the Great Depression. Francis Phelan, a former major league pitcher, has returned to his hometown of Albany, New York. His traveling companion is Helen Archer, who used to be a singer on the radio. Both are trapped in the grips of severe alcoholism - so much so that they have become disgusting skid row bums, lost in a cloud of fermented grains and grapes. Francis can never forgive himself for an accident involving his infant son. It started him on a path that has lead to his current crippled state. As he confronts his past, his former wife Annie and the remaining children he left behind, everyone wishes that he would clean up and come back. But as with many cast into the grip of addiction, Francis is bound to fail. He may never be free of the ghosts that haunt him.
In many ways, Ironweed is the cinematic equivalent of "sitting shiva", the week long Jewish ritual of mourning and grief that follows the loss of a loved one. It's uncompromisingly bleak and rife with the rot of its character's inner Hell. It's at times very touching. It's also incredibly tough to watch. As he did throughout most of his career, Babenco goes directly for what's most authentic and real about the material. Nicholson and Streep aren't just winos - they're dirty, foul-smelling DRUNKS. The stink of booze seeps from every pore and the collective filth from years on the street cake every exposed skin surface. As performances go, these powerhouses truly deliver. Streep is especially memorable as the former society gal whose demeanor now more closely represents a total train wreck. Her eyes are dim and red, her angular face almost unrecognizable with inferred alcohol bloat. When she steps up to sing "He's Me Pal", the frog croak compassion in her voice is almost unbearable.
Truth be told, a lot of Ironweed is very hard to take, especially in these equally grim economic times. As we watch Nicholson freefall into a state of almost irredeemable despair, we come face to face with the classic "there before the grace of God go I" notion of existence. Sure, there is the mandatory deep dark secret that brought the once 'normal' man to the evils of alcohol, but Nicholson adds so many nuances, and stays so true to his character's inner turmoil, that we can hardly see a silver lining. Babenco relies on a tried and true foreign filmmaker ideal - the magic realism of ghosts and ever-present spirits - to amply the character's angst. This is especially true in a scene where Phelan, haunted by literal visions of his past, breaks down in front of his almost forgiving ex-wife Annie (brilliantly essayed by Carroll Baker). Some may find this unusual approach off putting, especially in light of the sad and sullied truth the actors are bringing to the piece. Still, we can see what Babenco is driving at, so we more or less let him be.
Still, Ironweed is not the most entertaining of films. It's a downbeat and depressing experience that makes one wonder why anyone would want to follow along with these flawed, fallible people. There are times when the narrative is so dire and without optimism that we sense a purposelessness to it all. This is the kind of movie that offers up amazing work from the technical elements involved - acting, set design, art direction, costume and make-up - that the lack of any real redeeming quality plotwise becomes even more apparent. We're not sure if we want Francis and Helen to sober up and fly straight. They have spent so long in the throws of liquor's lubricating inertness that they may be unrecognizable without it. In fact, without its period piece pomp and unflinchingly cruel circumstances, Ironweed itself would be just another drunk's tale. Thanks to Babenco and his creative cast, things are more accessible than remote, and in the case of something like this dark, downbeat film, we need all the help we can get.
Quick - look over at your calendar. What year is it? As of the writing of this review, we are right at the start of 2009 - but you would never know this going by the god-awful atrocity of a transfer Lionsgate tries to foist upon us here. There is just no excuse - NO EXCUSE - for going full frame in a Blu-ray world. This movie was not screened in theaters at a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and the DVD should not be such a full frame fiasco. Of course, the company will complain that this is the best they could do, given numerous issues revolving around rights, prints, time, technology, and the cost of remastering a 22 year old image for a post-millennial digital age. The appropriate response to that is BULLS*IT!!! No matter how great a film, there is no reason to purchase an inferior version - and that's exactly what a non-AOR disc is.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo is also nothing special. The lack of any real ambient quality or immersive element is not usual, given the technology and the time frame the movie was made during. Babenco uses lots of interesting musical cues and the score by John Morris is enigmatic and appropriate. The dialogue is easily discernible and there are subtitles in case you miss some of the drunken rants.
Like the transfer, the added content (or lack thereof) is inexcusable. The only bonus feature is a photo gallery loaded with PR stills from the film's initial marketing campaign. That's it. No input from Babenco. No overview with the cast. No attempt to contextualize the film or find where it fits into the oeuvre of Nicholson, Streep, or their co-stars. Studios need to learn that obscure movies sell better when their archival qualities match the value of the work as art or commercial concern. Tossing something like Ironweed onto the DVD format with minimal consideration for the visual or bonus facets of the release is almost criminal.
While Ironweed is definitely a unique and frequently insular experience, it is not a wholly unrewarding one. The performances from Nicholson and Streep are extreme without being excessive, and Babenco brings a singularly alien viewpoint to this wholly American tragedy. Had Lionsgate stepped up and treated this title with dignity, we'd be looking at a Recommended rating...or Higher. While not always pleasant, the film does have its challenging charms. But thanks to a piss poor transfer, followed up by an almost embarrassing lack of extras, there is no other score but Skip It. Even if you're desperate to see a couple of our greatest actors really bringing their able "A" game to some complex material, the shabby treatment from a format perspective should really have you thinking twice. A couple of months back, Kiss of the Spider Woman was given a wonderful Special Edition reworking. It argued for Hector Babenco's place as a motion picture artist. Ironweed, while equally original, suffers from a lack of recall. It's a film that deserves better than this crappy DVD release.
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