Ironweed Movie Review
Since it stars a stereotypical Depression-era drunk you'd be tempted to think that the movie is a stereotypical treatment of the subject. Perhaps most directors would have played it that way, but Hector Babenco keeps things quite unusual. Instead of the familiar story most have come to expect from movies about prodigious amounts of alcohol ingestion: the fall, the bottom, then either redemption or death. There's none of the expected in Ironweed, no fall because we never see Francis when things were good, no bottom because he's already there, and redemption? Well that's a topic left to the viewer's imagination.
Instead of the standard format, Ironweed plays almost like series of vignettes. The running thread is one of heavy drinking, but that seems to be about the only thing holding the sometimes disparate storylines together. The most interesting of the side stories revolve around Francis' longtime girlfriend Helen Archer (Meryl Streep), but viewers will find plenty of other curious characters introduced along the way.
Ironweed is a long movie, clocking in at 2 hours and 23 minutes, and if you're wondering if loosely-tied together scraps of a story can keep a film interesting for that long the answer is that they can. For that you have to give a lot of credit to the actors. (Nicholson and Streep were both deservingly Oscar-nominated for their roles in Ironweed.) Give an actor a bottle as a prop and you can usually expect some serious over acting, the near universal interpretation of acting drunk seems to consist of talking loud, slurring words, and pratfalls. In the hands of Nicholson and Streep the temptation is avoided. When they're hammered you can tell, but you won't see Francis Phelan laying on the ground after tearing down a shower curtain and spouting off a witty one liner. When people are drunk in Ironweed (all the time) they are subdued and ashamed. They know what they're doing isn't healthy, but they are in a mad race to escape the real world and the inside track can be found at the bottom of a bottle.
The acting isn't the only high point in Ironweed, the cinematography feels just right and the sets look fantastic in a Depression-era, seedy sort of way. The character development is deftly done with even the minor characters having multiple dimensions to their personas. Ironweed, in total, is a very well crafted movie from almost any perspective, but for everything Ironweed gets right, it is still hard to shake the feeling that the movie is too disjointed to be great.