The wages of sin must be paid.
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, The Lord of the Rings) 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 (25th Hour), 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.
There's a big difference, though, between films driven by character and those driven by plot. Crime-dramas are plot-driven, an approach unusual for Burns, and that's where he stumbles. 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. But in the world of the crime-drama, it's the third act that separates the men from the boys, and that's where Ash Wednesday gets sloppy. 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.
Burns made Ash Wednesday in association with the Independent Film Channel, an enterprise known for low-budget art films shot on digital video. Listen to his commentary track here or on Sidewalks of New York, though, and its crystal clear Burns is not only a strong proponent of 35mm film, but that he has much experience in working efficiently and keeping budgets low in the format. As such, Ash Wednesday was shot on film instead of DV, and the results are handsome. Burns and cinematographer Russell Lee Fine (Naqoyqatsi) selected a stylized color palette for the film, shifted toward yellows. The minimal scenes set in 1980 are differentiated by a patina of heavy grain. The results are warm and rich and belie the low budget run 'n' gun nature of the production. The DVD presents the film in either open matte full screen or anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1. Both transfers are excellent in terms of detail and color, but the latter is the clear winner when it comes to shot composition.
The audio situation is strange to say the least. Soundtrack options include Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 Surround, of which the 2.0 is the clear winner. While the 5.1 track is technically 5.1, the rear soundstage is completely inactive. By contrast, the Dolby Surround track does engage the rear speakers and, as a result, is more immersive. I should mention, however, that I was working from a test disc provided by Lions Gate, not the finished product available on store shelves now, so the soundtrack issue may be an idiosyncrasy unique to my copy.
Extras include a theatrical trailer, and an informative commentary by Burns.
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—there's not a great deal of room for error. Unfortunately, Ash Wednesday crumbles in its third act, making it difficult to recommend. The performances, I suppose, make it worth a rental.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Writer-Director Edward Burns
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