Edward Burns has returned to the dark side. Those looking for the kind of airy romantic comedy he delivered in “She’s the One” will soon discover that the writer-director-actor is instead mining the grim, brooding vein he discovered in 1998’s “No Looking Back.” And while “Wednesday” travels a fertile landscape of spirits and demons, and is an improvement over last year’s “Sidewalks of New York,” it is also perhaps Burns’ least commercial pic to date — a film about penance, as the pic’s title suggests, — which may depress theatrical returns for distrib/co-producer IFC.
Burns plays Francis Sullivan, a reformed tough who used to bash heads on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. Three years ago this very day, Francis’ younger brother Sean (Elijah Wood) was murdered while foiling a plan to assassinate Francis, after which Francis decided to pursue the straight and narrow. But did Sean really die? Or was that arm found floating in the East River really just part of an elaborate smoke screen designed by Francis and Father Mahoney (James Handy) so Sean could flee to safety?
That’s a question a lot of people — including Sean’s wife, Grace (Rosario Dawson), and the revenge-minded gangster, Moran (Oliver Platt) — find themselves asking (and asking Francis, in particular) when reports start to surface that Sean has been seen in the neighborhood. Even Francis finds himself in an awkward position, having become close — possibly too close — to Grace in the intervening years.
What makes the film compelling is the way Burns has sketched out a series of weighty moral dilemmas, winding notions of sin and faith and destiny in a serpentine maze his characters must navigate.
Visually, the film is Burns’ most accomplished: It elicits the same sense of real New York fiber as Burns’ other movies, but this is the first of his films in which all those finely detailed, lived-in locations spring up like living, vibrant characters themselves. Set in Hell’s Kitchen circa 1980s, “Ash Wednesday” achieves the boozy, smoky memory of the neighborhood before gentrification set in. (As one character prophetically predicts: “Soon there won’t be any Irish left in Hell’s Kitchen.”)
Still, Burns’ films are invariably better directed and scripted than they are performed, and “Ash Wednesday” is no exception. Pic’s biggest drawback is that the helmer has again cast himself in the leading role. As Francis, Burns looks a bit scruffier than the affable, standup New York guys he’s portrayed previously, but he’s fundamentally the same — right down to that trademark knowing smirk and cocky strut — even though he’s supposed to be a humbled man deeply conflicted.
Burns has made what may be an even more questionable casting choice in Wood as Sean. Wood has been good in a few pictures now, but his distinctly boyish looks and voice are far better suited to roles that place him in the lands of Middle Earth than as a tough on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a drawback that makes the scenes where Wood and Burns have it out, mano a mano, a disaster.
Fortunately Dawson, who has perhaps the most complicated role, comes through with flying colors. A holdover from “Sidewalks,” she takes a fresh, utterly believable approach to Grace, who has to walk a razor’s edge in her feelings for the two brothers.
Burns has paid attention to the shading of many second- and third-tier roles as well. As Whitey, the patriarchal neighborhood boss and bar owner, Malachy McCourt exudes a magisterial authority. Platt, though underused, is around just long enough to pump the film full of quiet menace.
Russell Lee Fine’s lensing makes the most of the film’s rich images, from the wintry pull of a desolate Brooklyn street to the deep-stained wood paneling of a corner watering hole. David Shire’s score is too similar to those in other Burns pics.