There was a time when Sean Penn was better known for punching out photographers and headwaiters than for anything he did on a movie screen. So it comes as no surprise that The Crossing Guard, Penn's second stab at screenwriting and directing, depends on a sullen and seedy look and is set largely on the dark edge of Los Angeles, where strippers writhe in red light and ex-convicts try to put their lives back together in dim house trailers.
But Penn, a grownup now, also seeks to show us with the new film--in which he does not appear--that he's a sensitive Nineties guy. To that end, he gives us three characters who are tormented by the death of a little girl, six years earlier, in a traffic accident.
The child's father, a disheveled, solitary jeweler named Freddy Gale (played by a wintry, glum Jack Nicholson), seethes with rage and the hunger for vengeance. The remarried mother, Mary (Anjelica Huston), is hobbled by lingering grief. The drunken driver who hit the girl and has served five years for it (David Morse) is consumed by guilt and self-loathing. Each of them is out of control in a different way, and from their common plight--how to deal with trauma--Penn has fashioned a story about loneliness, need and possible redemption.
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It's not a bad idea for a movie, of course, but Penn still has some ground to cover. To say it bluntly, his grad-school-level screenplay, which is peppered with forced parallels and post-adolescent melancholy, probably wouldn't have gotten past a first reading were it not for its author's connections on the Left Coast. And high-wattage stars Nicholson and Huston might have passed, too, if they weren't longtime Penn-pals.
In any event, this solemn, well-intentioned film moves slowly and reworks old themes as if they'd just gotten off the boat. There's a cloud of gloom around Nicholson's Freddy as he stalks the man who killed his child, fully intending to kill him. But once you get beyond that familiar werewolf/psychopath gaze, there's not much weight to this undone Nicholson character: He seems as small as the B-girls he hauls home from the club after filling his guts with booze. Freddy's prey, whom Penn has named John Booth (wisely omitting the "Wilkes"), is touching in places, but Morse comes off like a hand-wringing psychodrama project. He's so one-dimensionally haunted, in a shallow, soap-opera kind of way, that he soon loses contact with the audience. When pretty JoJo, an understanding type played by Robin Wright, tries to seduce poor John, he collapses in a puddle.
For the checkstand tabloid set, the offscreen breakup of Nicholson and Huston has an echo here: In playing divorced people heavily damaged by their daughter's death, these two doubtless had some experiences to work from. But this isn't Huston's best work, either: Mary's sorrow, like the movie's, seems oddly disconnected from tragedy. And that's the real killer.