Director: Hector Barbenco
Screenplay: William Kennedy
Based on the novel by: William Kennedy
Producers: Keith Barish, Marcia Nasatir
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Tom Waits, Carroll Baker, Fred Gwynne
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 143 mins
Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name, Ironweed was a big deal upon release. Not only was director Hector Barbenco coming off the back of his oddball critical hit Kiss of the Spider Woman but he had managed to secure two of the biggest stars of the time to appear in his follow-up. By 1987, Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson both had two Oscar wins a piece under their belts already (and both would go on to win a third) so to get them in the same film was a real achievement. Neither actor disappointed. As a pair of Depression-era bums who wander the streets together haunted by their respective pasts, Streep and Nicholson are mesmerising and this powerhouse casting coup is clearly Ironweed’s greatest asset.
During the 1930s depression, Francis Phelan (Nicholson) is a washed-up former baseball player who abandoned his family decades earlier after he accidentally dropped and killed his infant son, possibly whilst inebriated. Since then he has become a bum, wandering the streets of various towns searching for food, booze and somewhere to sleep. Francis’s occasional lover and drinking partner Helen Archer (Streep) is a former musician who has also fallen upon hard times. When Francis returns to his former hometown of Albany, the two hook up for a night’s carousing but neither can escape their pasts: his an unenviable trail of accidental deaths and internalised shame, hers a possibly exaggerated brush with greatness which makes the disappointment of her subsequent lot even harder to bear.
The majority of reviews for Ironweed, which was ultimately received lukewarmly, contain either one of or both of the following complaints: it’s overlong and it’s depressing. While it is hard to completely refute either of these claims, the film’s length and melancholia are both key in helping it achieve its effect. Ironweed is less of a story and more of a reflective mood piece so in order to properly appreciate the lives of these outcasts we need to spend a decent amount of time experiencing their aimless existences for ourselves. A good chunk of the film’s first hour is spent simply following Francis, Helen and tagalong bum Rudy (Tom Waits, in one of his best supporting performances) drifting from place to place and clinging to each other’s company as solace in the face of desperation. This was probably my favourite portion of the film and it features an absolutely knockout scene in which Helen performs the song ‘He’s Me Pal’ to an appreciative barroom audience, only for the less rapturous reality to be revealed in its aftermath. The melancholic mood of Ironweed intensifies in its second half as the two leads separate for their own adventures. His takes him directly into his past while hers makes her face just how little there is in her future.
The major problem with Ironweed which prevents it from becoming a truly great film is William Kennedy’s screenplay. Adapted from his acclaimed book, Kennedy’s script seems to struggle with putting Francis’s motivations and feelings up on the screen. The device of showing his haunted memories as an ever-growing crowd of literal ghosts feels somewhat tired and the film may have benefited from more of the flashbacks it uses so sparingly. However, in the case of Helen, the film actually benefits from not giving us a glimpse of her past, creating a pleasing ambiguity as to how delusional she is. With some comparatively thin material to work with, Streep is phenomenal with her darting eyes and closed-off body language. Nicholson, meanwhile, gives an atypically subdued performance which works brilliantly when paired with Streep’s screen-filling turn. You can see the sadness, anger and regret right on the surface of Francis and he doesn’t work particularly hard to hide it. This is refreshing given how many dull dark-secret narratives there are out there, but Kennedy’s script fails to match the performance in strength, leaving Nicholson to do most of the work himself.
Ironweed could easily have emerged as a film that has nothing to say and there is a sense of disappointment if you search for didacticism at its heart but thanks to the two central performances (both of which secured Oscar nominations for the actors) the film actually emerges as an often fascinating character study of people who aren’t quite sure who they are anymore. It is frustrating to think this film, with its sparkling cinematography by Lauro Escorel and its perfect cast, could have been a classic with a tighter and more focused script but then there’s something fitting in it being the more enigmatic, underseen and half-forgotten film it actually became. I certainly enjoyed my time with it (all 2 and a half hours) and it hasn’t left my mind since that viewing, leading me to believe that I might find more in it with subsequent viewings. For now though, even with its superficially underwhelming screenplay, its a flawed gem that I found emotionally affecting and quietly beautiful. In a strange way, I think I loved it.
Ironweed is released on Dual Format DVD and Blu-ray by Eureka on 2 December 2019. The set comes with a collector’s booklet featuring new essays by Lee Gambin and Simon Ward.