Ash Wednesday is a story set in 1980's Hell's Kitchen, where two brothers, Sean (Elijah Wood) and Frances Sullivan (Ed Burns), are involved in the seedy Irish gangs that permeate the neighborhood. When Sean kills 3 men to save his older brother on Ash Wednesday of 1980, he is presumably killed. Now, 3 years later, sightings of Sean around the neighborhood arouse suspicions and stir up old feelings of enmity and revenge.
This film is a noble experiment, except that it fails dramatically. Ed Burns is a talented director, whose films are always interesting and stylishly shot (with some truly breath-taking uses of selective camera focus and lens choices). While the overall appearance of the film is quite beautiful and symbolic (sometimes, too much so), there is not much to say for the rest of it.
It seems as if the only character Ed Burns can play is himself and that the only schpiel that Elijah Wood can actually pull off believably is that of tortured innocence a la "Frodo" in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. To be fair, Wood is horribly mis-cast in this film, as even I find it difficult to believe that wide-eyed Wood is supposed to be a 22-year old murderer who grew up on the tough streets of Hell's Kitchen and is married to a much older-looking Rosario Dawson, saddled with a toddler.
There are plot holes in this film that are big enough for a tornado to whip through them. If one thinks about it, the characters in this film behave as if they have the brains of a squished grape for supposedly street-smart men (Sean leaving his highly-identifiable wallet in his coat? Sitting in the front seat of a car under a street light when on the run? Hell, just going out in the neighborhood when he is supposed to be dead is idiotic).
As for the rest of the characters of the film...I just don't understand. Half of them were of little use to the overall story while the "hardened" detective stuck out like a monkey in a chicken coop. He was, perhaps, the most useless character of all, standing around in the scenery, issuing out badly-acted, emotion-less threats of menace. And let's not get into the nemesis of the brothers, the "bad guy" that the audience is clearly supposed to boo - he had all the evil intensity of a paper bag.
The camera work in this film, while innovative in some areas, also robs us of emotional involvement in a story that clearly depends on it. The near-lack of close ups, or even medium shots, is frustrating. Also, Burns is quite well known for his use of hand-held camera work, and while I think that he employs this use very well, he also misuses it in this film. I would say that the best-shot sequence of the film is during the very first scene. In fact, it is the only scene where I could sense any true emotion at all (it probably helped that Elijah Wood was not speaking).
And just to be nit-picky, the piano-esque score of the film, while interesting and moody at first, quickly descended into repetitive and irritating. Unfortunately, one hears it throughout the entire film and the pain just never ends.
Unfortunately, bad acting, bad dialogue, and a bad, predictable script could not make up for the wonderful look of this film. If you want to watch an intense religion'n'violence flick about two close brothers that is also stylishly fulfilling - go rent The Boondock Saints.
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