Ash Wednesday (2002)

I decided to dig deep for this review, settling on a movie I watched as a broke grad student while cat-sitting for my professor. For someone who wrote expertly on Julia Kristeva and casually brought up Jacques Derrida, she had a pretty shit DVD collection, one I burned through instead of sweating over my thesis. Hence, this is me, ten years later.

Maybe it’s appropriate then that I’m writing about Ash Wednesday. I feel like I’m resurrecting something that should be left for dead, much like the main character in this movie. The film apparently screened in just two theaters, limping on to a lonely DVD afterlife in places as far-flung as Hong Kong. Similarly, Sean Sullivan (Elijah Wood) is resigned to a wayfarer’s existence after killing three men in a bar on Ash Wednesday in 1980. He does this to protect his older brother, Francis Xavier (Edward Burns), who is involved with the Irish American gangs of Hell’s Kitchen. Everyone assumes that Sean met a bloody end, but he was instead ferried away by Francis with help from the parish priest. Exactly three years later, word gets around that Sean is back from the dead, and the news doesn’t sit well with anyone.

You might think there’s more to the story, but this is really the entirety of the plot. Most of the movie is either people telling Francis his brother is in town or Francis telling them the opposite. Even when Sean finally emerges, the two continue to argue about his unexpected appearance. Since it takes so damn long for everyone to figure out what’s going on, the movie is stuck in limbo until Sean and Francis’s enemies decide to seek revenge. That’s when the brothers also realize that Sean needs to hightail it out of town if he wants to live another day. But this time he’s not going without his girl, Grace (Rosario Dawson). It’s going to be tricky to convince her though because no one bothered to let her in on the truth all these years. Not only did she believe she was a widow, but she also raised her son thinking his father was dead.

I’d hoped for something more gripping from Burns, doing quadruple duty as writer-director-producer-star. He had a much lauded indie hit, The Brothers McMullen, back in the mid-1990s and seems to have been trying to replicate that success ever since. This movie is another one of his contributions to the Irish American Catholic mythology, though more along the lines of Coppola or Scorsese. Unfortunately, the story never feels rooted in a real community. There’s plenty of religious imagery and the tone is one of perpetual Lent. You also have your Maggies and Murphys and even a bar called the Blarney Stone. But all this is window dressing to hide the fact that there’s not much there, not a deep meditation on Lenten sacrifice or a intimate portrait of Irish American identity. The casting is wildly off mark too. I’m sure there’s a good movie waiting to be made in which Burns, Wood, and Dawson star as a family unit, but this is not the one.

Released: 2002
Prod: Edward Burns, Margot Bridger
Dir: Edward Burns
Writer: Edward Burns
Cast: Edward Burns, Elijah Wood, Rosario Dawson, Oliver Platt, James Handy
Time: 99 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017