Reviewed April 4th, 2003 by David Nusair
Ash Wednesday marks Ed Burnsí latest film in his capacity as writer/director, and itís easily his weakest film to date. Like No Looking Back, his 1998 drama, Ash Wednesday is clearly Burnsí attempt to move away from romantic comedies Ė but (as that film already proved) Burns really should stick to what he knows best.
The film opens three years prior, and Sean (Elijah Wood) overhears a group of thugs talking about killing his brother, Francis (Burns). Sean takes things into his own hands, and essentially executes the three men Ė resulting in his own death. Cut to the present day, and Francis begins hearing rumors that his brother was in town last night drinking beer. He does all he can to refute the gossip, but word eventually gets back to the brother of one of the slain goons from three years ago (played by Oliver Platt). The majority of the film follows Francis as he attempts to keep Platt and other assorted baddies at bay, while also dealing with Seanís ex-wife (Rosario Dawson).
Itís quite apparent that Ash Wednesday is supposed to be Burnsí variation on Mean Streets. But unlike that Scorsese classic, Ash Wednesday is essentially devoid of interesting characters or even a halfway intriguing plot. Weíre just never given a reason to care about any of these people; the only semi-decent character is Dawsonís character. Her struggle to accept the possible re-appearance of Sean Ė compounded by the fact that sheís been sleeping with Francis Ė is just about the only intriguing aspect of the film.
The biggest problem here is familiarity; thereís nothing here thatís entirely original or that hasnít already been done in countless other films (and better, at that). Though Burns has already proven he has a real knack for writing interesting dialogue, thatís certainly not the case here. Presumably, his goal was to create a moody tale of redemption and violence Ė along the same lines as those classic thrillers from the Ď70s (he even hired David Shire, who won an Oscar for The Conversation, to do the score) Ė but it just doesnít work. Like James Grayís The Yards, the filmís atmosphere is the most interesting thing about it; the dark and smoky look of the various haunts populated by the characters proves to be more intriguing than anything thatís actually happening on screen. What Gray and Burns donít seem to realize (and what the directors of the Ď70s were all-too-aware of), itís easy enough to create an appropriate look for the film, but creating a story worth following and characters that are able to act independently of the plot is another thing entirely.
Audio: Ash Wednesday is presented with a Dolby 2.0 soundtrack, and itís good. Thereís not much need for surrounds in a film like this, but the dialogue is always crisp and clear.
Video: This anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 transfer does a good job of representing the overwhelming darkness in the film. There are some instances of film-related grain, but on the whole, itís a decent transfer.
Extras: The primary extra here is a commentary track with Ed Burns, which proves to be more entertaining than the film itself. He has a real knack for telling stories, and as the film progresses, he never runs out of things to talk about (which is generally the biggest problem with commentary tracks). Also included is a trailer.
Conclusion: If youíre just getting into Ed Burnsí films, Ash Wednesday might be worth a look out of curiosity. But really, youíd be fine sticking with his comedies.
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