Set in Albany, New York of 1938 during the Great Depression, where you are either considered a Swell making enough to get by, or a bum living day by day on the streets. According to homeless drifter Francis “Franny” Phelan (Jack Nicholson) there really isn’t much of a difference. He was once a gifted baseball pitcher who has, following a series of tragic events, become a tormented soul. Now he's reduced to sleeping on the rubbish strewn sidewalk, often shuffling from one flophouse to the next in an alcoholic haze.
Ironweed (1987) begins with Phelan arriving back to his old stomping ground, where the family live that he abandoned some 22 years previously. He desperately needs work, just to earn a little money for food, which at first finds him shovelling dirt at the local graveyard. He weeps beside one of the gravestones, remembering the horrifying day when he lost his young son after accidentally dropping him.
The film was adapted for the screen by William Kennedy, from his 1984 Pulitzer Prize winning novel (the third book in his acclaimed Albany Cycle series). Lacking a conventional plot, the film consists mainly of a series of passages, often with Phelan reflecting back on some terrible incidences that have left him wracked with guilt. The ghosts of those he has wronged seem to stalk him constantly and, in some haunting sequences, appear before his eyes during those darkest moments (one of them is played by Broadway star Nathan Lane in an early screen appearance). Phelan is not an evil person, demonstrating a compassionate side during the course of the film, as he tries to save a homeless woman who’s freezing to death on an unforgiving wintry avenue.
Phelan is not entirely alone in the world, with terminally-ill pal Rudy (an excellent Tom Waits) often by his side. Then there's his long-time companion Helen Archer (Meryl Streep), who is never far away. There is deep-rooted love between them, though neither can stay off the sauce for very long, so routinely bicker and fall out. She was once a talented radio vocalist, now a bleary-eyed has-been. Archer can still belt out a tune when the opportunity arises, though when she warbles “He’s me Pal” in a packed bar and imagines rapturous applause, the sad reality is that people barely take any notice.
There are some poignant scenes, like an emotional Archer confessing her sins in church, or Phelan finally confronting his wife (Carroll Baker) and children in an attempt to find some inner peace. It’s easy to imagine Nicholson cutting loose playing a drunk, yet he turns in a magnificently restrained performance under the sensitive direction of Argentinian filmmaker Héctor Babenco (Kiss of the Spiderwoman).
Both Nicholson and co-star Streep were Oscar nominated for their roles as the impoverished couple. He would ultimately lose out that year to Michael Douglas, who scooped Best Actor at the 1988 awards for his role in Wall Street – and whose character Gordon Gekko ironically had that famous “greed is good” mantra.
The film offers no easy answers to the predicaments that the characters face. In fact, it’s astonishing how a story set more than 80 years ago contains elements that still resonate in the modern world. It does suffer from an unrelentingly bleak tone, wallowing in gloom for nearly two and a half hours. A few lighter interludes are sometimes sorely needed, though these never materialise. See it for some wonderful heartfelt performances, just don’t expect an uplifting feel-good experience.
Ironweed has been released by Eureka! in a dual format edition, making its debut in the UK on both DVD and Blu-ray.
The film had only a limited UK cinema release back in 1988 by Palace Pictures, emerging a little later on VHS. It's certainly one of Nicholson's lesser known films from that era, coming between two of his more flamboyant roles in The Witches of Eastwick (1987) and Batman (1989).
The HD image, presented here in a ratio of 1.78:1, exhibits plenty of fine detail, showing off the impressive production design by Jeannine Oppewall to good effect. It's sometimes a dark film, often with a muted colour palette. Levels of contrast are handled effectively, with only some light filmic grain. No signs of damage were evident throughout.
The original 2.0 audio is retained and does a fine job, with distinct dialogue and no discernible issues.
English subtitles have been included.
None on the disc besides a trailer. There is a collector's booklet featuring new essays on the film by Lee Gambin and Simon Ward (not available for review).