What to do if you’re a sensitive young man growing up on the hardscrabble streets of Hell’s Kitchen in the early 1980’s? Your old man is one the neighborhood’s biggest Irish gangsters, and your older brother—about as sensitive as pavement in February—has already gone to work for him. He is throwing his life away, and he has also thrown some people off rooftops for the old man. Your older brother is accruing quite the bad ass rep, as well as a steep debt to a rival crew.
You’re bartending on a Wednesday night—the ashes from morning mass are still on your thoughtful forehead. You’re probably thinking about your beautiful young Puerto Rican bride at home, and that if you hear Radar Love one more time on the jukebox while you’re working you are going to think of any excuse to murder someone. Sensitive or not, that song on constant replay would drive Mahatma Gandhi to open up on a crowd with a Gatling gun.
As luck would have it, above the din of drunkard’s talk about non-existent ex-girlfriends and fortunes almost won, you hear three tough guys planning to knock off your brother. Their flat caps and facial hair flame with anger as they await the go ahead to dispatch of this despicable person, your brother. Drinking and talking murder for hours, even the hardiest of bladders will need some release and the three retire to the men’s room. You really love your older brother. You really hate Radar Love. Your wife begs you to stay out of the business of crime. You pull a pistol from behind the bar. You aren’t part of the life your father and brother lead. Here comes that annoying drum solo. You slowly creep down the hallway as if you will be savaged by ghosts at any moment. What about your beautiful wife? You open the door slowly. Does this stupid song go on forever???
You leave three dead guys in the toilet, their unimpressive brains sprayed on urinal cakes.
Written and directed by Edward Burns, Ash Wednesday is a nice little slice of low-life drama. Unless they are high or a member of Burns’ family, no one is going to mistake it for a classic like Scorcese’s Mean Streets. However, Ash Wednesday is an efficient and professionally made film with little in the way of artistic flair. It features the common theme of brotherhood and family which permeates much of Burns’ directorial work like the smell of boiling potatoes fumigating my grandmother’s house on St. Paddy’s Day.
Burns plays Francis Sullivan, the eldest son of a departed Hell’s Kitchen crime lord. His younger brother, Sean, has been presumed dead for three years along with three of crime boss Moran’s(Oliver Platt) men sent to kill Francis. Sean is played by a miscast Elijah Wood, who seems too refined and delicate to be a part of this gritty world, even if it is noted in the film that Sean was not cut out for that type of life. While everyone else in the cast sound like they are from the angry avenues in the rough and tumble west side neighborhood, Wood sounds too much like a Connecticut Prep School kid. He’s a fine actor, but just seems more believable as a make believe denizen of Middle Earth than a creature from Hell’s Kitchen.
On the three year anniversary of Sean’s death, Francis awakes to the neighborhood talking about people seeing Sean drinking in a bar the night before. Some chalk it up to drunken gossip and mistaken identity, while some believe it really was him. Francis deflects the questions with his wise-ass attitude and handsome smirk, something Burns is an expert at. It may limit him in the believable roles the man can chose, but if you can do something well, just keep doing it. We don’t always need variety. Fuck, we got retards that have been serving in Congress for centuries, it seems. Who says change is good?
The Sean sightings win Francis a visit from elder statesmen crime boss Whitey, played by Malachy McCourt. Malachy McCourt would be a great name for an Irish vampire, or devil worshiper. Whitey gives Francis a stern warning–if the Sean rumors are true, he won’t be able to keep Moran from exacting revenge this time. This actually almost takes the smirk off Francis’ face for about as long as it takes him to down a shot of Jameson to get his bearings again.
I don’t know how Burns’ character managed to stay sober the whole movie. He always seemed to be opening a new bottle of beer in every scene, flinging bottle caps everywhere like Eddie Van Halen tossing guitar picks into the audience. I swear to God, I believe Francis pulled out a beer in a church sacristy as he is scheming with Father Mahoney, played by wonderful character actor, James Handy. Catholic priests named Mahoney are about as uncommon as puke on the sidewalks during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. March is prime time flu season, after all.
As with many of the films he directs, Burns fills Ash Wednesday with an excellent cast. They may not be superstars, but they are all professional actors who get the job done. Rosario Dawson is good here as Sean’s wife, Grace. Oliver Platt is a fun presence in his small role as Moran. He almost seems ready to devour a chair or something when he gets worked up talking about the Sullivan brothers.
Having the movie set in the early 1980’s, Burns gets to fill the soundtrack with classic hard rock from the 70’s and early 80’s. He even uses a few deep cuts not usually heard in these type of films. Props must be given to Burns for using Zebra’s Who’s Behind the Door in a scene. One wonders if he grew up listening to WBAB on Long Island? In contrast to the hard driving soundtrack, composer David Shire’s score is suitably melancholy and low-key.
Ash Wednesday probably won’t knock anyone’s socks off with its blazing artistry, or knockout performance by one of the stars. It doesn’t have any of these. Burns does create a believable world and fill it with enough interesting malcontents and good dialogue to keep you occupied if you are waiting for the laundry to dry, or your sister to have her wisdom teeth pulled.