Edward Burns grew up as part of an Irish-Catholic family from New York, and the second child of three. As such, his distinct New York sensibilities, his siblingness and his Catholic upbringing have very much figured themselves into his work. Prior to 2002, his films were all romantic comedies, which gave him some moderate, if not overwhelming success. Naturally, as his career grew, so did his ambitions. For his fifth film, Burns tried a different approach. He did away with the easy, albeit blunt romantic comedy stylings and took aim at something else. Still maintaining his focus on sibling relationships and an Irish-Catholic influence, he tried his hand at something darker, replete with atmosphere, tension and religious metaphor.
Hell’s Kitchen, Ash Wednesday, 1983. Rumours have begun to circulate that Francis Sullivan (Edward Burns)’s younger brother Sean (Elijah Wood) has been seen around the old neighbourhood, despite him being dead for three years. Believing him to still be alive, the people that wanted him dead in the first place start asking questions. The local mob boss also starts to feel the pressure, since he’s acting as protector over Francis… and Sean. As the weight slowly builds, Francis has to organise a way for Sean and his wife Grace (Rosario Dawson), who doesn’t know he’s still alive, to get out of the city before they all get killed.
I first saw Ash Wednesday not too long after it first came out on DVD. A friend and I were having a movie night, so we got some pizza and hit the rental place to see what we could find. Honestly, neither of us knew anything about the film, but it sounded intriguing enough to warrant the renting price, so we got that (and likely a couple of others) and headed off for our watching. I still remember it, because by the end of the night, both of us really liked the film. So much so, that we both became minor fans of Edward Burns, seeking out his other stuff to watch. Now, the rest of his work at the time was nothing like Ash Wednesday, but we liked them well enough. Today brings the first time I’ve really watched any of his stuff for a long while, during which time I’ve learned a few things. One of those things is that Ash Wednesday was a colossal flop, and I mean colossal. I have no idea what the budget was to begin with, but the distributors clearly were not hopeful for the film, giving it an incredibly weak run of one week at two theatres. Just two. The total cinematic box office for Ash Wednesday is less than $3,000. I have no idea as to whether or not the film made its money back on DVD sales or rentals, but to do so would have been a hell of an uphill struggle.
This must have been especially galling for Burns, since this was clearly a very big risk for him as a filmmaker. Since he had made his name from making romantic comedies of sorts, Ash Wednesday was an attempt by Burns to experiment, to try his hand at a new genre, to stretch beyond the limitations that he had worked himself into. It was a very ambitious project for the man, and the fact that it failed so spectacularly must have been a serious blow to his creative ego. In fact, we know that this is the case, since he has made five films since then, all of which return him to his romantic comedy roots. I have to say, I do respect this kind of risk-taking. It takes serious balls to ignore, even potentially alienate your existing fanbase to satisfy a personal creative venture. Sure, there’s the chance it could backfire horribly, but there’s also the chance that it could pay off and open up new doors for him. It’s a gamble that many others would simply have felt too much to follow through. However, much like the character he plays in the film, Edward Burns seems to be a bit of a gambler.
In this particular filmmaking gamble, Burns draws heavily on his religious upbringing as a source of thematic concern and allegory. Notions of guilt, sin, repentance and redemption flow freely through the piece. Francis was an enforcer for the mob, a role given to him by his father. Between this often messy work and his gambling problems, he offends the wrong people, who now want him killed as a message to others. However, the men that have been brought in for the job discuss the details in the bar where Francis’ brother Sean works. When Sean overhears their plans, he kills the would-be hitmen in the bathroom. Sean tells his priest, who tells Francis and the three get Sean out of town with the help of the local mob boss, Whitey. Three years later, the trouble resurfaces when Sean comes home to be with the wife he abandoned, though she believes him to be dead.
Yes, admittedly, it is a little unnecessarily convoluted. Honestly, the script is a mixed batch of good and bad. However, the themes do remain present and strong throughout, particularly the old Catholic standby - Guilt. Everyone in the film feels guilt for something, which is generally codified by the ash cross on various characters’ foreheads. Francis wears his as a sign of his guilt over his past deeds with the mob, as well as what his brother was forced to do for him. Grace wears hers because of the guilt she feels over the fact that she took solace in the arms of Francis after Sean’s disappearance. The priest, Father Mahoney, played his part in the deception, too. That Sean does not have a cross on his forehead just shows that he feels no guilt for what he did, simply acting in the best interests of his brother. It’s perhaps not exactly a subtle indicator, but it works very nicely, both in terms of dramatic signification and spatial legitimacy.
However, all of this genuinely interesting stuff is rather undercut by several aspects of the film that just let things down. Burns has completely dropped his old visual sensibility, opting for a new one of longer takes, canted angles and a grittier film texture shown by Russell Lee Fine’s cinematography. These would actually work well, if not for the fact that it all feels somewhat put on. It feels more like Burns trying to be Martin Scorsese, so there’s a sense of affectation, of pretence. It’s really something that runs through the film as a whole. So often, there’s the sense that Burns is consciously trying to make his own Mean Streets, but without the effortless artistry or the simmering power that Scorsese can draw out. There’s also a scene that is basically a flagrant lift from Raging Bull, with Sean asking Francis whether or not he had sex with Grace. Burns also mimics Scorsese’s eclectic musical influences, drawing from various periods to suit the film. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but beside the other evidence, it’s difficult to see it any other way. Hell, several of the songs used in the film (Radar Love by Golden Earring, Catch Me Now I’m Falling by The Kinks, Let It Ride by Bachmann-Turner Overdrive) actually come from 1973, the year that Mean Streets was released. Add to this the parallels with Scorsese’s own concerns with religion and New York… even though Burns already uses these aspects regularly, you see how all of this mounts up, right? I admire the spirit of artistic experimentation, but it feels too much like Burns copied someone else’s homework.
The acting in the film is often rather off, mainly from the leading roles. Francis is meant to be a tough guy, but one struck through with deep regret and guilt. Burns carries off the former trait, but does less well with the latter. One of the reasons I like Burns as an actor is the deadpan sarcasm in his delivery, but it really gets in the way here. You should feel that all he wants to do is say he’s sorry, but can't. Instead, it’s more like ‘yeah, but what are you gonna do?’ He never plays it like it’s meant to be funny, and it never comes across that way, but the idea that he’s all torn up with guilt is lost. Both Elijah Wood and Rosario Dawson, two fine actors on their own, seem to be giving performances that seem stuck around Week Two of rehearsals. There’s a lack of conviction in their readings, with little real emotional development, so it seems like they’re just going through the motions. They’re in the right area, but they haven’t nearly gone far enough. I attribute this more to Burns’ direction, though. Others do better, with Oliver Platt and James Handy giving the best work in the film.
There is an issue with the editing, too. It feels blunt, often quite amateurish at times. One of the film’s few moments of action, a gunfight, sees one character hit in the arm. Perhaps there was no money for a squib pack or some sort of effect, but it’s been left to David Greenwald’s editing to construct the hit, and it looks a little shoddy. It reminds me of the gunfights you see in student films, with shots too static and a bad pace to them, so it's very unconvincing. Frankly, it’s a little ugly to look at. And some conversations that should be down to simple 'shot-counter shot' dynamics are cut too close to the beginning of lines, making the words feel like they’re being punched out rather than spoken. If this was an intentional effect, it doesn’t work. It breaks the cardinal rule of invisible editing: it draws attention to itself.
A note on the score from David Shire. It’s a simple piano piece that gets repeated at various points, with the occasional change here and there. Personally, I like it. It’s got a subtle atmosphere about it, which works well for the apprehension of the film. Saying that, I am aware that many people really dislike it, precisely because it’s a simple piano piece that gets repeated. It’s also very memorable, a sort of moody earworm. Again, I like it, but I know that I’m likely to be in a minority on a lot of this.
Whilst I can see the many flaws of Ash Wednesday, I still can’t say I dislike it. Whether or not I’m still holding on to the memory of a good night watching movies, and thus have more of a blinder on the faults as a result, I still rather like it. The faults are many and rather inexcusable, but the one thing that shines through for myself is the ambition behind the project. This is Burns trying to test his borders, find out if he can really offer the world more than just romantic comedy. I'd like to see more people give this one a try, just be aware that most people don’t care much for this film.