Plot: What’s it about?
On Ash Wednesday in 1983, the past seems to be on a collision course with the present, with harsh conflicts on the horizon. Francis Sullivan (Edward Burns) owns a low rent tavern in Hell’s Kitchen and while he keeps a low profile, his checkered past is well known. He is the son of a former enforcer for the Irish mafia, which means while he wasn’t involved directly in the actions, bad blood exists between him and some others. His younger brother Sean (Elijah Wood) has been dead for three years, but Francis has handled the event well and hasn’t sought retribution. Which is strange, since Sean was killed in a vendetta incident, but no one has done much to settle the situation, so it remains somewhat open. But of late, some people have claimed to have seen Sean around and not in the ground, instead out on the streets. Francis is told by several people, some friend and some enemy, that Sean’s presence has been noted, to the best of the witnesses’ vision. This sparks some serious problems in the neighborhood, as the past resurfaces and regardless of the truth, bloodshed seems unavoidable. Is Sean still alive and if so, will he be killed for real this time and either way, who else will perish in the violent conflict?
After the success of The Sopranos, low budget mafia movies have been the rage, some even featuring cast members from the acclaimed series. But while Ash Wednesday deals with mobster themes, this is by no means an attempt to cash in on the gangster genre, as Edward Burns has crafted a solid motion picture. Burns wrote, directs, and stars here, in a realistic and intense film about the bonds of brotherhood, crime, and religion. Unlike a lot of mobster movies, this one doesn’t add polish to the criminal lifestyle, it makes it look as dirty and dangerous as it is real life, which alone sets Ash Wednesday apart from most genre entries. In addition, the genre is known for its violence and over the top presence, whereas Burns works more with dialogue and dark visuals, instead of the more traditional gangster movie elements. So yes, Burns stays with what he does best and loads this picture with dialogue, which means frequent slow stretches. This is good for the storyline of course, but those expecting a normal mobster movie could be let down by all the talking, since the genre is better known for action. In the end, Ash Wednesday is a good movie that could have been better, but it is still a worthwhile genre picture. Lions Gate’s disc offers minimal extras and only a full screen edition, so I’d recommend leaving this one on the shelf.
As he writes, directs, produces, and stars in this production, you have to think that Edward Burns was the driving force behind Ash Wednesday. And while that seems like a lot of burden to shoulder, Burns has shown before he can handle the added weight and of course, his dedication says a lot about his faith in the material. In other words, if Burns wasn’t confident this could be a good movie, he wouldn’t have become so involved in it, he might have just let someone else direct or star in Ash Wednesday. But since he took such a personal interest in the project, from its inception to its final version, its obvious he believed in this material. And his faith in the work extends into every aspect of his involvement, from his direction to his acting, so he injects some intense effort into this production. If you’re used to seeing him in his romantic comedies, you might be surprised by his dramatic depth, as he is superb here. Other films with Burns include Life or Something Like It, She’s the One, Saving Private Ryan, and 15 Minutes. The cast also includes Rosario Dawson (Josie and the Pussycats, Men in Black II), Oliver Platt (Lake Placid, A Time to Kill), and Elijah Wood (The Ice Storm, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring).
Video: How does it look?
Ash Wednesday is presented in a full screen presentation. The case claims a widescreen version is included and the film did have a limited theatrical run, but for some reason, this is a full screen only release. This is unexpected since Lions Gate has been good about original aspect ratio treatments and since IFC was involved, since they take pride in presenting the movies as the filmmakers intended. As far as I can tell, some slight cropping is evident at times, but no serious pans & scans can be seen. So the framing is acceptable in the scenes, but this is still a let down, since I doubt this is how Burns intended the film to be shown. The dark visuals come across well here, but without a proper widescreen edition, it all comes up short. I’m not sure why this one is only full screen, but I am sure sales will be lost as a result.
Audio: How does it sound?
You’ll find a Dolby Digital 5.1 option here, but as this one is all about the dialogue, it never turns into an immersive experience. The focus is on the vocals from start to finish here, with minimal other use of the audio channels. A few scenes have some subtle presence to stage atmosphere, but even then, don’t expect much. But given the movie’s low key tone, you wouldn’t want a powerful, jarring audio experience, so no need for concern. I do want to mention the musical score, as David Shire’s music is excellent and sounds very good here. Aside from the music however, the audio remains basic and unremarkable. This disc also includes subtitles in English and Spanish, should you need those options.
Supplements: What are the extras?
This disc includes the film’s trailer, as well as an audio commentary with jack-of-all-trades Edward Burns. As he wore so many hats in this production, Burns is able to guide us through the entire process, with no holds barred. If you’ve heard a session from him before, then you know how candid and insightful he can be and here, he does the same as usual. So you’ll learn a lot about the material, how it was brought to the screen, and even hear Burns’ thoughts on how it might have been changed, perhaps even for the better. An excellent session as usual, as Burns really reveals a ton of behind the scenes information.