Posted: 06/18/2003


Ash Wednesday


by Del Harvey

Sean Sullivan goes into hiding after killing three hoods who were going to kill his brother for failing to honor his sizable gambling debts. Three years later to the day, Sean turns up and endangers those who love and protected him.

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Sean and Francis Sullivan are the sons of John Sullivan, an enforcer for Whitey, the local mob boss. Francis follows in father John’s footsteps while Sean, the smart one, is sent off to college. Sean gets married to Grace at 18 and works in a bar part-time, where he overhears the conversation which leads him to kill three men in order to protect his brother’s life. When a hitman is sent after Sean, Francis kills him and uses body parts as evidence of Sean’s death. Sean hits the road, promising never to return to his home and family. But after three years of living and working in Texas, he can stay away no longer, and the neighborhood thinks it’s seeing a ghost. Of course Moran, the young rival mobster who sent the three thugs, wants his revenge.

Ash Wednesday is an ambitious undertaking by actor, writer, and first-time director Edward Burns. He nearly pulls it off thanks to excellent acting, a good story, and some very stylish cinematography. The story is solid, if a little slow to get moving, and provides some first-rate characters and holds back just enough to keep the intrigue alive. However, the decision made by Edward Burns’ character of Francis at the end is not surprising, just confusing. The final scene keeps Ash Wednesday in the art-house category.

The other glaring mistake in this film is the soundtrack. It is almost entirely a piano soundtrack, obviously one pianist who was hired to score the film, and at the worst of times overwhelms the events passing onscreen with distractingly inappropriate music. Note to all first-time filmmakers: wherever possible, use the ambient noise in the scene; it not only sounds real, but it gives the viewer something unjarring to listen to while watching the action on the screen.

Beyond that, Ash Wednesday is a very good little mystery/drama. It’s got the three elements, as noted by Evelyn Waugh: sex, mystery, and religion. Elijah Wood is Sean, and it’s good to see him play something besides hobbits. He carries himself well, here, and shows us there is much depth to his abilities. Edward Burns is as good as always in the lead role, especially realizing he wrote and directed the film. I like this man’s talent and hope his work continues to blossom.

Rosario Dawson is Sean’s wife Grace. She is lovely and quite effective as the confused woman who feels at once both betrayed and optimistic. Oliver Pratt is continues to show considerable talent as both a character actor and a heavy in the role of rising mobster Moran. And veteran Irish character actors Malachy McCourt as Whitey and James Handy as Father Mahoney lend an air of authenticity and stability.

Ash Wednesday is a good little mystery rental and worth your time.

Del Harvey is a writer and the founder of Film Monthly. He is a devout Chicago Bears fan, loves Grant Park in any season, and recently taught screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.

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