The critically acclaimed 1987 powerhouse period piece Irownweed pulls no punches. This is spectacular dramatic cinema with blistering performances from Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, both of whom seemed utterly smashed all throughout the production. I was not prepared for how grim this movie would be, and I credit the director, Héctor Babenco (Kiss of the Spider Woman, At Play in the Fields of the Lord), for never allowing the material to escape his firm grasp, as this story could easily have gone the cheap and easy route towards the end. It doesn’t. And because it doesn’t, it resonates. Nicholson has rarely been better than he was in Ironweed; for some reason his quiet and soulful work in The Border came to mind while watching him in this film. Set during the Great Depression and taking place in and around Albany, NY (where it was shot on location), this is one of those slow-burn pieces of cinema that sticks to the ribs. Playing a deeply depressed former baseball player who could be responsible for the accidental death of his infant son years ago, Nicholson nailed the wobbly and boozy character with tremendous gusto, yet never went too far over the top into overwrought histrionics. Has Streep ever been bad in a film? I doubt it. In Ironweed, she plays a woman beyond the reach of help, and her tired eyes and sickly visage helped to create a portrait of a woman who is literally falling apart on both the inside and the outside.
The two lost souls search for some sort of meaning in their broken lives, while probably knowing deep down inside that they are three sheets to the wind and unlikely to find solace. And even if the worldview is bleak and limiting, the strength of the performances and the forceful nature of Barbenco’s directorial style keeps the film extremely watchable, despite the obviously tough subject matter. William Kennedy adapted his own Pulitzer Prize winning novel for the big screen, so as a result, one gets the impression that this is precisely what the original author would have wanted to see. The deep supporting cast includes Carroll Baker, Michael O’Keefe, Diane Venora, Fred Gwynne, Nathan Lane and Tom Waits. The filmmakers also wonderfully evoked a very specific time and place, with Lauro Escorel handling the un-showy, measured cinematography, which made great use of the authentic, lived-in production design by the great Jeannine Oppewall (L.A. Confidential, Pleasantville). The costumes also played a big part, with designer Joseph G. Aulisi (Nobody’s Fool, The Pope of Greenwich Village) stressing tattered garments and dirty, disheveled garment pairings to amplify the sorrowful mood. The flashbacks and frequent introspective beats allow for a dream like vibe, and when the unrelenting ending comes around the corner, there’ll be no escaping it. Because that’s how it had to go. Both Nicholson and Streep were rightfully nominated for Oscars. Ironweed is available as a free HD streaming option on YouTube via the Paramount Vault channel.