The road to self-pity

Jack Nicholson teeters on the edge in The Crossing Guard

I wasn't much of a fan of Sean Penn's first effort as a writer-director, The Indian Runner. The film, a mood piece about a man's return from Vietnam and his big brother's attempts to understand him, had the kind of problems you'd expect from many freshman efforts; it was long on feeling, short on craft. Mostly due to its patchy pacing and out-dated themes (movies interpreting the Vietnam experience were well past their prime when it came out), The Indian Runner indicated that Penn was better in front of the camera than behind it. When he announced soon after the film's release in 1991 that he was giving up acting to devote himself full time to directing, I assumed we'd never hear from him again.

I'm glad I was wrong, because his new film, The Crossing Guard, is a surprising and affecting film. While not a work of great subtlety or imagination, its mix of melodrama and genuine emotion--and great performances from Jack Nicholson, David Morse, and Anjelica Huston--grabs our attention like a horrible train wreck, and it's impossible to turn away from the grim emotional spectacle of its truthfulness.

The Crossing Guard suffers from a few of the same shortcomings as The Indian Runner, most obviously a plot that sounds as stale as a 1970s-era exploitative action movie: Freddy (Nicholson) hasn't been able to cope with the death of his young daughter six years earlier at the hands of a drunk driver, John Booth (Morse). When Booth is released from prison after serving time for manslaughter, Freddy resolves to kill him.

If Charles Bronson had made this film, any plot to speak of would end there; you could expect lots of blood-letting as Freddy relentlessly tracked down and butchered the lousy killer, giving him what he deserved if the penal system weren't so damned lax. (Morse would invariably be given a maniacal giggle, just in case you might be tempted to sympathize with him). But The Crossing Guard isn't about killing Booth; it's about the emotional torture that makes Freddy want to kill him, and the remorse Booth feels for his crime. In the end, the film is a sober portrait of two men whose similarities outnumber their differences, and who must find a way to get on with their lives.

In Penn's somewhat simplistic construct, Freddy and Booth are opposite sides to the same coin, men whose lives became intersected by a single random, tragic event. Booth may have spent five years behind a prison wall, but Freddy has spent time inside the prison of his all-consuming hatred. In effect, we are shown two men who, although having taken two wildly different roads--for Freddy, anger, for Booth, guilt--have arrived at the same place--self-pity. Penn's message (to the extent he has one beyond the borders of the film itself) is that however valid these men's feelings once were, neither has put his emotions to beneficial use. Booth, who ultimately serves as the story's real protagonist, may exhibit actual regret about his crime, but he ignores the opportunity to channel his feelings toward a helpful end. He's even unable to get close to a woman who shows interest in him (Robin Wright) because of the self-loathing that occupies his thoughts. You half believe that subconsciously Booth wants to be killed, as if the martyr status his murder would exact somehow would give credence to his self-pity.

Freddy's despair--and the weakness it reveals--destroys his marriage to Mary (Huston). She's managed to cope with her grief by remarrying (her new husband is played by former Band singer-songwriter Robbie Robertson), but Freddy interprets this as a betrayal to the memory of their daughter. He might not have adjusted to it, but Mary has adjusted too well, and the rift between them (bridged only by the creaky remnants of what was once love) spans the room.

Penn doesn't pull any punches as a director, and he paints a rough, jagged portrait of family strife and the emotional abuses people endure at the hands of lovers. The starkness of Penn's domestic confrontations, especially apparent in the two long scenes between Nicholson and Huston (one at her house, the other in a late-night diner), evokes an uncomfortable familiarity. But the signature scene of the film features Freddy alone in a bathroom, talking to Mary on the phone and confessing his pain. Nicholson has never looked older or more dried up, and his way of waking us up to Freddy's agony is jolting. Most of the time Freddy comes off as merely a volatile, explosive wild card, but in that scene his profound sadness bursts through. The moment is raw and soulful, and Nicholson's performance condenses every emotion that got Freddy to this point with lacerating accuracy. He's never been better.

Penn's direction is full of the same questing, the same uncertainty, as his characters. He seems like a man trying to find the right rhythms--the right style to tell a personal story. And so there's an excess of slow motion and needless matching shots (once he sets up the dichotomy of Freddy and Booth, he continues to hammer it home). Neither is the film's final thesis--the healing power of sacrificial kindness--totally convincing, but with such passion and honesty in evidence, you have to give The Crossing Guard its due; it wears its heart proudly on its sleeve, and dares you to ignore it.

The Crossing Guard. Miramax. Jack Nicholson, David Morse, Anjelica Huston, Robbie Robertson. Written and directed by Sean Penn. Now showing.

 
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