Cult Movie: Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep shine in underrated Depression-era drama Ironweed

Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson in Ironweed
Ralph McLean


CRITICALLY speaking, Ironweed met with mostly shrugged shoulders when it appeared in 1987. Odd, really, given the people involved in its making – but understandable to some degree when you re-watch it today.

A slow burning, depression era tale of two bar bums frittering away their lives in the shadows of deep regret and missed opportunities, it was probably never destined for mass approval despite the talent behind it.

Recently re-issued on Blu-ray and DVD by Eureka Entertainment, it was directed by Hector Barbenco, who was fresh from the surprise success of Kiss Of The Spider Woman. It was based on a Pulitzer winning novel by William Kennedy and starred the dynamic duo of Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep at the very peak of their box office powers (they both had two Oscars to their name at this point and would both go on to enjoy a third taste of Academy glory afterwards).

It's got some sublime cinematography from Laura Escorel and even features a fine supporting role from the great Tom Waits. Despite all those obvious attributes, it remains for many an overly long and depressing project that simply failed to connect with critics and audiences in the way it probably should.

Watching it several decades on, it is in many ways a remarkable piece of work. A flawed, overly melancholic and moody piece of work, but remarkable all the same.

Francis Phelan (Nicholson) is a clapped out former baseball star who ran out on his family when he accidentally dropped and killed his baby son. Tortured by internal guilt he roams the nearby towns hoovering up food where he can and drink at every available opportunity.

Helen Archer (Streep) is his sometime lover and willing booze partner and she also wallows in deep regret. In her case, the reasons for her misery are less clear, but seem to revolve around a musical career that should have been great but wound up predictably mediocre. Together, this washed up pair wind up in Francis' home town where the ghosts of the past are waiting for them both.

Kennedy's own adapted screenplay meanders at a deathly pace at times but, if you can deal with the slow moving miserablism, there's much to marvel at here. There's a gorgeous faded glory to the way the depression era streets are shot that fits the mood perfectly and Tom Waits, no stranger to the well-judged cameo appearance in mood pieces, gives a memorable turn as a fellow barfly who hangs around for the ride.

The greatest thing on show though are the two central performances: Streep is fantastically edgy as the shut down singer festering in self-imposed misery and Nicholson is – and you don't get to say this everyday – brilliantly still and understated as the guilty father running away from both his family and himself.

Both were Oscar nominated for their performances here but, at over two-and-a-half hours, Ironweed found few supporters on its original release. Perhaps now is the time to give it a little much needed love and affection.

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