The characters in Ironweed weren’t always without hope. Each of them once had the world at their feet, but let it slip away. Now it’s gone, and it is never coming back. Hector Babenco’s 1987 film of William Kennedy's novel is the story of a man awash in guilt, sadness and self-loathing, who travels back to the source of all his pain.
Francis Phelan (Jack Nicholson) first appears awakening from beneath a blanket of newspapers on a cold, blustery morning. Francis is a bum, and the film quickly assures us that he has been one for some time. Riding with his buddy Rudy (Tom Waits) to a job digging graves, we start to realize that Francis is back in his hometown of Albany for the first time in many years. It’s here in this cemetery that Phelan starts to shed a little light into his past. He walks past the graves of his parents, and stops at one belonging to his infant son Gerald. Gerald was only 13 days old when Francis accidently dropped him on the floor, killing him instantly. Unable to forgive himself, Francis left home and disappeared into a miasma of alcoholism and poverty.
Phelan’s companion Helen Archer (Meryl Streep) has her own history. She was once a promising classically trained singer and pianist until her own problems with the bottle derailed her. She has been with Francis for nine years, but still thinks of herself as a musician. This despite the fact that she is forced to have sex with another bum in exchange for a warm place to sleep.
The genius of Ironwood is the way it encases these two shattered people in a world which largely excludes non-alcoholic, non-vagrant people. In this way, when the two do come into contact with the outside world, the effect is disconcerting. When their own plight is reflected back to them, the two bums have to shrink from sight.
Take a scene where Francis takes a job helping a rag-picker man doing his rounds. At one stop, Francis sees a woman that he knew as a child. Feeling shamed and self-conscious, he asks not to have to confront her. A similar scene involves Helen meeting a former acquaintance in a library. Her self-loathing is palpable here, as she can’t get up and leave fast enough, muttering about past injustices all the while.
Both Francis and Helen are deep in the throes of alcoholism and the film takes a little bit of time in illustrating just how far gone they are. One of the signature scenes in Ironwood is when Helen is asked to sing in a pub, and she does a rendition of “He’s Me Pal”. As she progresses through the song, it becomes clear that she has entered a hallucination of herself as a great artist, and the song ends to thunderous applause. Then, it doubles back to reality, and we see the truth – A couple of polite claps.
Francis’ alcoholism is built upon the pillars of the tragic mistakes he has made in his life. Growing up in Albany, New York at the turn of the century, Phelan seemed to have a bright future. He was a skilled baseball player who seemed destined for the big leagues. An Albany trolley strike gets violent, however, and Francis kills a man with a thrown rock. Another man is killed in self-defence on a freight train. Francis is confronted time and time again by the ghosts of these men, plus one other unnamed one. And we already can surmise who the other ghost is. Francis lashes out at these ghosts, and appears as a madman to onlookers.
Ironweed was filmed in and around the Albany area, and a big part of the appeal of the film is how authentically it re-creates 1938 America. The film doesn’t have the look of a pristine copy – rather, it has the look of a place that has been there a long time. It evokes the feel of going back to a place where you haven’t been for a long time. Things all look a bit weathered and run down. There’s a marvelous scene where Francis recalls an affair he had with a beautiful, sophisticated, but insane woman in his youth, and it’s utterly flawless partly because of the obvious decay of the once stately old house.
The moment that the film builds towards is the time when Francis goes to confront his family again after being gone for 22 years. It circles around it a bit first - Francis points the house out at one point. When the time finally comes, the film doesn’t deal in false sentimentality. It’s somber in the way that it illustrates people who don’t know how to begin talking to each other. Francis’ wife Annie (Carroll Baker) is cautious, but is also clearly happy to see him. His daughter Peggy (Diane Verona) is hostile at first, but softens. The key encounter here, however, is with Peggy’s son Danny. He talks to Danny, and gives him an old baseball that he had saved, and it’s evident that in this child, Francis probably sees a bit of what he has missed in all those years away. It’s an exquisite scene, full of regret and melancholy.
The final conversation between Francis and Annie is poignant, but sadly predictable. Annie still loves Francis, despite everything. She forgave him for Gerald, and in fact never told anyone what happened. She even strongly suggests that she would like him to stay. Francis, for his part knows that that isn’t in the cards. This reunion with his family has been somewhat cathartic for him, but he can’t allow himself to go back. Others may forgive him, but he never will. As the film closes, Francis is in yet another freight train, leaving Albany behind him, probably forever this time. The camera goes back and shows Danny’s room, as it was shown to Francis earlier, and we hear Annie’s voice again:
“It’s a nice big room – We could set up a cot in there”