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ASH WEDNESDAY (2002)
Writer-director Edward Burns' (The Brothers McMullen) stab at the crime-drama opens, appropriately enough, on Ash Wednesday in 1980. Working at a bar in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood his father controls with an iron fist, Sean Sullivan (Elijah Wood) overhears a couple thugs planning to gun down his brother, Francis (Burns), over gambling debts. Young Sean takes matters into his own hands and assassinates the assassins. Flash forward three years and we learn Sean in turn was murdered by the brother (Oliver Platt) of one of the assassins. The dreadful events have set Francis—a former enforcer for his father—on the straight-and-narrow. But, on Ash Wednesday, 1983—the three-year anniversary of the deaths—some people in the neighborhood are claiming to have seen Sean, alive and well. Francis dismisses the sightings as ridiculous, but his former enemies aren't so sure. So, what's the truth?
Ash Wednesday is a bit of a departure for Edward Burns, who's most known for his relationship pictures like She's the One and Sidewalks of New York. Its strengths are where it's firmly planted in familiar Burns territory: the characters are well drawn; the dialogue is crisp, smart, and realistic; the New York milieu is textured and detailed; and the acting is superb. Burns' camera setups give the actors plenty of space, and his interactions with Wood, Rosario Dawson, who plays Sean's widow, and just about anyone else in the picture are vibrant and real. An actor himself, Burns knows how to direct actors, knows how to elicit natural performances. Having done his time in actors' workshops, I'm sure, he also knows how to write characters with clearly defined yet psychologically complex motivations.
The screenplay uses time cleverly as Burns doles out information about the events during the three years between Sean's death and the present of the film with skillful deliberation. He uses the age-old trick of disorienting his audience by dropping us into the middle of events and, like a good smack dealer, maintaining his grip on us by giving us a little relief just as the itch becomes unbearable.
There are some Cadillac Escalade-sized plot holes in this one. I won't reveal details, but suffice it to say some turns of plot are so contrived, they're unmistakably lazy ways to get the plot from point A to point B. In the end, Burns fails to fully integrate his rich characters with the mechanics of plot. Things are not helped by the fact the name of the film and the day on which the action takes place essentially telegraph the fate of one of the major characters. In the least, Edward Burns deserves credit for trying something different, adding a layer of complexity to the foundation of skillfully drawn characters and smart dialogue he's already mastered. Crime-dramas are a bit of an all-or-nothing proposition, though. So dependent on the mechanics of plot, when the end credits role, either the house of cards is standing or its not.
From the moment I saw his debut film The Brothers McMullen in 1995, I was a fan of writer/director Edward Burns. He has such a talent for capturing the way people speak to one another. The dialogue in his movies often rings true to me. Good dialogue is one of the hardest things to capture in a film, so when someone does it, I can’t help but sit up and take notice. McMullen and its follow-up, She’s the One were romantic comedies, but Burns has ambitions beyond that, as shown by his film, Ash Wednesday.
The story begins on the titular day in 1980. Sean Sullivan (Elijah Wood), an 18-year old bartender in Hell’s Kitchen, shoots three members of a local mob. Cut to three years later. Sean’s brother Francis (Burns) is approached by a mafioso. There are rumors that Sean – who was allegedly murdered in retaliation – was seen ordering a drink in a neighborhood pub. If it is true that Sean is not dead after all, a hot-tempered mobster (Oliver Platt) whose brother and cousin were among the men Sean killed, may come looking for some vengeance of his own. Francis would be a prime target for that. A gang war could possibly erupt as well.
Francis denies to everyone that Sean is alive. He claims that the supposed sighting was merely a case of mistaken identity. However, we soon learn that Sean really is alive. Francis and a priest faked his death and sent him into hiding. Sean came back to “see the old neighborhood” and retrieve his wife (Rosario Dawson) who never knew what really happened; she believed that he was dead. Francis is furious that his brother would put so many lives in danger. He again plans to shuttle Sean out of the city, but Sean won’t go without his wife. What he doesn’t know is that she and Francis had an affair while he was gone.
Ash Wednesday is clearly a darker, more angry film than Edward Burns has made before. The title gives you a clue as to the story’s theme. Ash Wednesday, as all Catholics know, is the day when ashes are placed on your forehead to symbolize the fact that we all come from dust and return to dust again one day. It is also a day to repent for sins. These ideas are all throughout the film, especially since most of the characters have the ashes on their foreheads.
The look of the movie is very gritty, and the performances are intense. Burns understands the value of a strong cast, and once again he assembles one. Elijah Wood perfectly captures that kind of youthful impulsivity that makes Sean want to return to Hell’s Kitchen, even though it could put lives in jeopardy. Rosario Dawson again proves herself a compelling young actress, delivering yet another fiery performance as the wife who is shocked to learn that she’s been lied to for three years. The best performance, though, belongs to Burns himself, who might be an even better actor than he is a filmmaker. The same guy who showed such sarcastic charm in McMullen now effectively plays a brooding guy, working overtime to prevent a bad situation from combusting.
At times, the movie engages in many of the typical cliches of the “mean streets” genre. There’s a lot of tough talk, a lot of encounters in dimly lit barrooms, and of course, a tragic ending. However, it is clear that the themes are very important to Burns, and that is what makes Ash Wednesday so engaging. Sean, on one hand, had a reason for killing the men. It was not something he wanted to do, but something he felt he had to do. There is also guilt about having deceived his wife for three years. He wants to make amends to her. Francis, on the other hand, regrets the life of crime he previously lived – the very same one, it turns out, that put Sean into such a precarious position. Right after that incident, Francis found God and turned over a new leaf. Amidst the danger and vengeance-seeking that surrounds him, he tries to hold onto his faith and be a better guy.
Catholicism has been a recurring theme in Burns’ films. I like the fact that he has themes. Like the great auteurs in cinema, Burns is a filmmaker who uses film to explore certain ideas that intrigue him. As a fan, I am willing to follow him on that journey, no matter whether it takes the form of comedy or tragedy. Ash Wednesday is not his best film, but it is a good and ambitious film, and it marks Burns as one of the most interesting writer/directors working today.