While watching Edward Burns' latest feature, Ash Wednesday, Sean Penn immediately sprang to mind. When Penn declared years ago that he was going to forego acting in any major Hollywood productions to concentrate solely on his own highly personal films that he would sometimes write and always direct, it nearly stood to reason. After all, he had watched with horror and regret (and commented publicly) as one of his best friends - and fellow actor of Serious Purpose, Nicolas Cage - decided to vie for the title of Hollywood action hero (read: sell out). Moreover, Penn had been receiving precious little support from the studios for his own projects, and was bemoaning the dearth of what he judged to be quality mainstream roles. His proclamation - which ultimately, and thankfully, he did not honor - was impassioned, bitter, reckless, foolhardy, and probably well intentioned: in short, typical Sean Penn. Not unlike John Cassavetes before him, he continues to act in larger features (mostly admirably, although I still do not know what to make of I am Sam), knowing full well that the trade off affords him the means to make his own films. To date, he has directed three flawed, yet very interesting films while trying to navigate the straits of his self-imposed cinematic formula: the Indian Runner, the Crossing Guard, and the Pledge. Burns, the New York-based writer, producer, director, and actor appears to be using a similar template.
Although Burns' ambition and talent across the board - and, I might add, ratios of success - are nowhere near that of Penn's, he seems to be endeavoring for a similar brand of authenticity / integrity. For all the nonsense in which he has elected to appear as an actor (15 Minutes, Life or Something Like It), he has continued to stay true to his personal concerns (atone?) by making low-budget, locally based New York films. Admirably, Burns also appears to be good to those close to him – he regularly employs many of the same friends (as actors, extras, and technicians) that he has worked with before (the Brothers McMullen, She's the One, No Looking Back, Sidewalks of New York). He also seems to enjoy portraying his magnanimity as good old-fashioned working class back scratching. Indeed, many of his films, as well as his short-lived sitcom for NBC the Fighting Fitzgeralds (co-produced with his brother Brian), gravitate toward a contemporary working class milieu, especially that of a particularly Irish, New York City working class environment. Even when he branches out a bit from his familiar terrain (such as in Sidewalks of New York), his works all possess a similar feel: they are amiable, if not offensive; earnest and lightheartedly witty, if not guided by any greater purpose. The Hollywood v. Indie equation as stated above would ultimately prove far more valuable if only his own films were more interesting.
Ash Wednesday is the fifth film written, produced, acted, and directed by Burns, and it may also be his most ambitious. However, like his other works, it is also highly derivative and not especially insightful. Most film geeks (myself included) can tell you with almost comical specificity what film it was that opened their eyes to the more lofty ambitions and possibilities of the medium, and Burns is no different - he openly cites Scorsese's initial calling card (and one of his seminal works), Mean Streets, as his. Ash Wednesday invokes Scorsese with a disconcertingly offhanded frequency – direct and indirect allusions to Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and even GoodFellas abound. (His previous venture as writer/producer/director/actor, Sidewalks of New York, pretty much accomplished the same with another indispensable New York filmmaking icon, Woody Allen.) Ash Wednesday treads familiar ground from its outset, offering no real suspense, meaningful character development, or novel thematic treatment in Burns' own voice. Similar to Burns' screen persona, it remains somewhat likeable, yet laconic and strangely detached, fundamentally unremarkable.
In the Catholic faith, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, the day in which the faithful mark their repentance, mourning, and penance by wearing the symbol of the cross on their foreheads. As it turns out, Francis Sullivan (Burns) certainly has a lot to be contrite for – he used to be a strong-arm enforcer for his father, who once ran the mob activities in New York City's Hell's Kitchen. On Ash Wednesday, 1980, his brother Sean (Elijah Wood) killed three men that were plotting to kill Francis. Flash ahead three years later to the day: Sean has long been thought dead, killed as retribution for his deed, which in turn caused Francis to renounce his previous ways and become a law-abiding, pious man. However, it has also been long rumored that Fran himself killed the hitman that was brought to New York to kill Sean and that Sean survived. So, when word gets out that Sean has been seen drinking at a local watering hole, the locals understandably begin to buzz.
Instantly, Francis is beset by various competing factions that have an interest in knowing if Sean is indeed alive: Whitey, the new boss (Malachy McCourt, brother of Frank McCourt, who wrote about him in Angela's Ashes, and quite the character in his own right); Father Mahoney (James Handy) who has helped the clan Sullivan over the years; thug Moran (Oliver Platt), a rival gangster whose brother was killed by Sean; and lastly, Sean's wife Grace (Rosario Dawson), who bore a son she thought fatherless and has subsequently taken a romantic interest to Francis. Realizing the potentially volcanic situation, and fully aware that only further bloodshed will result from the revelation, Fran commences his fateful attempt to set things right once and for all. That he happens to do so with the cross on his forehead doubling as a symbolic bullseye only adds to the heavy-handedness of the proceedings.
Aided by an able, talented cast of instantly recognizable faces, it's a shame that Burns doesn't really give them all that much to do. We have encountered all of these characters before, in one form or another, in countless films (including Burns' own) that have already covered these themes to greater degrees of success. The outcome does not prove difficult to surmise, and, in all fairness, that's not always a fault – if the characters and story are adequately compelling, the march toward the inevitable conclusion can be urgent and quite moving. Ash Wednesday, as it stands, is neither and serves merely as a minor entry into the genre and in Burns' career as a writer / director / producer / actor.
Video: For a film that was shot in twenty days with a budget of $2.5 million, Ash Wednesday certainly looks great, and is presented in an anamorphically enhanced aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (there is also a full-frame presentation if so inclined). Cinematographer Russell Lee Fine bathes the film in somber, autumnal hues of brown, yellow, and orange. The film is not vigorously directed by any means - Burns will be the first to admit that he is not overly concerned with camera movement or direction that calls attention to itself, as character and story are his primary concerns. That being said, Ash Wednesday is largely a very handsome film, and the transfer itself is very well done.
Audio: Ash Wednesday is presented in DD 2.0 and 5.1. For a film heavy on dialogue, the 5.1 surround mix is accordingly subdued. The film boasts a lovely score courtesy of a plaintive piano by David Shire, and it sounds great. It also blasts some hard rock favorites from the Scorpions, Motorhead (!), Triumph, Twisted Sister, Zebra, and Golden Earring, all of which are given a good treatment.
Extras: Included is a full length commentary track by Burns which is informative and somewhat entertaining. Although he moans about his budget and its attendant restrictions ad nauseam, he does provide some valuable insight into the process of shooting on the quick (including not being able to look at projected dailies and why exterior framing had to be done in close ups, since he could not shut down streets and remove latter day cars, etc.) He also speaks with refreshing candor as to scenes he wishes he had omitted, how he let Fine direct, edit, and even use 16mm film stock for the flashback sequences, and Ash Wednesday's obvious cinematic influences. I also got a kick out of how Oliver Platt was brought on – he and Burns happened to meet at a local Christening and began discussing the film after the ceremony. The film's trailer is also included; other than that, there's nothing else of any substance to speak of.
Final Thoughts: If you happen to enjoy Edward Burns as an actor, writer, or director, or have featured any of his previous films, I recommend renting Ash Wednesday. For all the diehard LOTR fans out there, please note that Elijah Wood delivers a generally perfunctory performance – however, if you're a completist, you may want to give it a rent as well. As for replay, well, there's a very high probability that you've pretty much seen all this before. I'd stick with Scorsese's Mean Streets, Burns' obvious source material – if you have not seen it yet, I recommend you do so immediately. If you would like to catch another altogether more successful film concerning many of the same specific thematic elements as Ash Wednesday (i.e., Irish mob in Hell's Kitchen, Catholicism and its influence, sibling & familial rivalries, ethnic conflicts, loyalty, duty, etc.), I heartily recommend Phil Joanou's underrated and overlooked State of Grace (1990), which was recently released on DVD by MGM. Although that film is certainly not perfect, it does provide a more fully realized and interesting read on matters than the disappointingly by-the-numbers Ash Wednesday. In addition, it happens to feature a solid, soulful performance by none other than Sean Penn.