Ironweed is a tall, tough-stemmed plant that persists when others can’t. In the film of the same name (UA Coronet), Francis Phelan is one of that genus too. Once--around 1910--Phelan was a husband, father, working man and even star third baseman for the Washington Senators. Then a series of deaths eroded his will. Carrying those dead spirits with him, he has been on the bum for more than 20 years, but, ironweed that he is, he just won’t check out.
Director Hector Babenco and screenwriter William Kennedy, author of three period novels set in Albany, N.Y., of which the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ironweed” is the most notable, have been attentive, even reverent in transposing the book to film.
But reverence may not be what a movie audience needs to fathom Phelan’s haunted story. Even illuminated by the unsparing performances of Jack Nicholson as Francis and Meryl Streep as Helen, his companion of nine years and another soul stumbling away from grace, the film becomes becalmed and confusing; it lacks the novel’s great unwavering trajectory.
“Ironweed” still takes place over two or three deathly cold days at Halloween in 1938 as Phelan is “inching toward death” and two of his friends, Helen and cancer-wracked Rudy (Tom Waits), are moving toward it at a somewhat faster pace. We keep track of all three, but Phelan is the film’s center. And in these waning days he will go back for the first time in 22 years to the home and family he ran away from.
But somehow, Babenco, a director with enormous empathy for the outcast and dispossessed (“Pixote,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman”), and one who might seem a reasonable choice for this material, has put the dramatic accents in all the wrong places.
We can learn early about the other deaths on Francis Phelan’s conscience: the strikebreaker who caught Phelan’s hurled rock in the temple during a trolley strike; the cleaver-wielding hobo who made the mistake of trying to part Phelan from his shoes. And there were even more: Phelan is a man more drawn to violence than others.
But the death of his 13-day-old son Gerald and the reasons for it were the most awful burden for Phelan to carry, and Babenco hasn’t weighted it properly. It was this death that loosened Phelan’s grip on an ordinary life and sent him running, literally and figuratively. But it’s hard to see it that way in the film. So, instead of an inexorable slide from a dramatic point, we sort of mill around in the lives of Francis and Helen and Rudy and a few more, uncertain of where we--or they--are heading.
The film has set-pieces that look like Edward Hopper paintings, which is just what we murmur to ourselves when we see them. It’s a nice visual reference, but almost too artful. The sophisticated “Pennies From Heaven” might deliberately quote from Hopper; “Ironweed” deserves the black-and-white authenticity of a Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange photograph.
We have the added burden of seeing the dead with whom Phelan has sharp conversations, a really dreadful decision from an artistic point of view. They are in white clothes, with plaster-white faces; the one whose brains leaked from his head has them leaking yet, and the one whose head was cleavered has a sort of glowing neon gash along his scalp. And since they are dressed in a 20-year’s earlier style, in tight-fitting suits with bowler hats, they look rather like mail-order catalogue ghosts.
All of this serves to undercut the careful work that both Nicholson and Streep have done. Pink-eyed and hidden under her cloche hat for almost all the film, Streep has constructed a character with a thousand tiny adjustments. Her mouth twisting and grimacing, Streep’s speech has an alcoholic’s sudden spurts of inflection on odd words; her gestures are in answer to inner and unperceived questions.
Helen was, indeed, once a gently bred Vassar girl, headed for a classical music career when the family money ran out. Much of her family history comes out in a bellicose mutter and her most wonderful scene is a half-fantasy when, visiting a bar with Rudy and Francis, she belts out “He’s Me Pal” with a charm that bowls over the customers and drops 20 years from her age. But there’s a kicker to the scene--in Helen’s life there always is.
Nicholson’s performance doesn’t whimper for our approval, and it carries some of the intensely ironic Irish humor that runs in a vein through the book. The back-and-forth between Phelan and Tom Waits’ Rudy provides some the film’s greatest joys. And there are fine moments, too, in Phelan’s scene with the old, randy rag and bone man (Hy Anzell) whose route takes Phelan dangerously close to home turf.
And the gentleness, the raffish gallantry that he shows for Helen is all the more touching when we realize that she is literally dying because he is running away from her too. He will find a car for her to sleep in, but ignore the dear price she’ll have to pay to a grizzled alcoholic for the shelter.
As he did in “Spider Woman,” Babenco has given his two principals full rein to explore their characters. Their shattering performances--along with Waits’, and Carroll Baker’s and Diane Venora’s as the mother and daughter Phelan left behind--make it almost obligatory to see the movie. But it’s not an unharrowing experience.