Ironweed was directed masterfully by Brazilian native Héctor Babenco, (Pixote, At Play in the Fields of the Lord).
The screenplay was by William Kennedy based on his the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. The cinematography was by Lauro Escorel, and the music was by John Morris.
Babenco shot most of the film on location in the upper Hudson Valley of New York State. The gritty locations include the seedy sides of, Albany, Glenville, Athens, Slingerlands, Troy, Watervliet, and Hudson. Hudson by the way was the town that filled in for the town of Melton in Classic Noir Odds Against Tomorrow.
When I saw this film back in 1987 I wasn't remotely into Film Noir, I was a Western aficionado. I wasn't appreciating what I saw at the time. Two down and out characters that a thirty-four year old found un-relateable and slightly repulsive.
Watching this film again just the other night was a eye opener. I never appreciated it at the time I saw it. I needed to acquire a sense of noir-ish cinematic memory. You only achieve this by getting quite a few Film Noir and Transitional Noirs under one's belt. Then you start to appreciate the iconography, see the tropes, the patterns, the archetypes, the full range of the Noir spectrum. When all the right ingredients are there your mind clicks. Noir is a drug for the mind, you know it when you watch it. Noir stimulates aesthetic, emotional and occasionally erotic feelings.
Ironweed not only makes great use of the above mentioned locations but Babenco's moody style uses both eerie gin soaked flashbacks and slightly disorienting DT hallucinations.
Ironweed is just one relentless downward spiral of melancholy and regret.
Jack Nicholson as Francis Phelan actually will blow you away. Nicholson gives what is one of his best performances. He's an on the skids has been ballplayer.....
Wind, the great outside. A slow thundering steam locomotive leaves a freight yard it brought a cargo of broken dreams. It whistle a call of the wild-ass ones. The losers, the dreamers, the vagabonds, ones that were just plain unlucky to be in the right place at the wrong time. The ones... kissed with life's wrench. Living literally on the Earth.
From the steam to the clouds to the Moon and Milky Way to the sounds of morning. An edifice, a building, a man made cliff. Wind the atmospheric river's current. A flock of birds.
The pile stirs. So begins Ironweed.
He sits up. Raises he right arm clutching a bottle of booze. Checking the dregs. He's a hobo stew-bum delivered by the nightly freight drag. He's Frank Phelan, Albany hometown boy, a has been ball player, who deserted his family after he couldn't get his mind around the tragedy that in 1916 he accidentally dropped and killed his infant son.
He didn't know if the four beers he'd had or the fact that he was dead tired from work had something to do with it. He was, because of this unanswered question, haunted by guilt. Though his wife forgave him, it still drove him away from his family, out on the road, and into a bottle to try and maintain. There are other ghosts in Franks closet.
Frank makes his way along the wall to a main stem. He travels up the middle of the asphalt. He he's heading for a rendezvous. A bum rendezvous, centered around the arrives at the Mission Of Holy Redemption. At an oil drum fire the topic is the weather. Frank's back in town looking for Helen (Merle Streep).
A bum rendezvous, centered around the arrives at the Mission Of Holy Redemption. At an oil drum fire the topic is the weather. Frank's back in town looking for Helen (Merle Streep).
|Frank Phelan (Jack Nicholson)|
|two tone shoes|
|Rudy (Tom Waits)|
Frank recruits Rudy (Tom Waits) to work with him at the cemetery, gravediggin'. When they get done at sunset and are waiting for the truck to take them back, Frank visits his own family's neighborhood in the bone yard.
At the grave of his infant son he breaks down in a compelling performance by Nicholson. Pee Wee questions Frank, Frank haltingly spills the beans.
Rudy: You know somebody that's buried up there?
Frank: Yeah, a little kid.
Rudy: Little kid? What'd he do, die young?
Frank: Pretty young, yeah.
Rudy: What happened?
Frank: He fell.
Rudy: Fell where?
Frank: On the floor.
Rudy: Fell on the floor? I fall on the floor about twice a day. I ain't dead yet.
Rudy: Fell on the floor, I fall on the floor twice a day and I ain't dead yet.
Frank: That's what you think.
On the bus back to the mission Frank passes his old house. Frank tells Rudy that he used to live there.
Rudy: Who lives there now?
Frank: Some people I used to know.
In the first hallucination Frank converses with the scab about how they were taking away their jobs and keeping us from feeding our families. The scab replies that that is odd logic coming from a man who abandoned his own family. Frank tells the specter that he dropped his baby son and he died, he couldn't face that.
|Scab (Nathan Lane)|
The Mission of the Holy Redemption, Frank tells us is full of men who "don't believe in nothin', they's just hungry."
At the mission Frank gets a lead on another job for a rag picker, and while he's having a bowl of soup in walks Frank's gal pal Helen.
|Helen (Merle Streep)|
A bum at the mission tells Helen and Francis that Oscar Reo (Fred Gwynne) is in town, he used to sing on the radio like Helen. He was the most musical drunk they ever saw and he blew his career with booze. But he's back as a singing, on-the-wagon, bartender at The Gilded Cage. They arrive and listen to Oscar crooning.
|Oscar Reo (Fred Gwynne)|
Finally Frank takes her to a bum that's got himself an abandoned car for a crash pad.
Helen can stay as long as he gets to cop a feel and then wacks him off in the morning. She's done the routine before. Frank heads to his old neighborhood.
In the morning Helen pays off her debt with a hand-job.
Frank gets a job with a rag-man. This is a private carting enterprise that hauls away newspapers, rags, trash, and junk.
|Rag Man Rosskam (Hy Anzell)|
When they get to Franks old neighborhood he gets a flashback of his first lay. She was an oversexed Victorian lady, who seduces Frank by coming out of the ornate gingerbread house naked.
When they arrive at Franks street he asks for his money and hops off the rag wagon. With some of the cash he buy's a turkey and calls on his wife Annie Phelan, (Caroll Baker). They haven't seen each other in 22 years. It's a touching reunion.
|Annie Phelan (Carroll Baker)|
Ironweed got mixed reviews. Not many could relate to the downer story line but Nicholson, Streep, and Baker were amazing. Screencaps are from an online streamer. It's a downer but worth a watch 8/10