Examining twin journeys of reconcilement -- one with grief and one with guilt -- Sean Penn's sophomore feature, "The Crossing Guard," is a sorrowful account of the aftermath of tragedy.

Examining twin journeys of reconcilement — one with grief and one with guilt — Sean Penn’s sophomore feature, “The Crossing Guard,” is a sorrowful account of the aftermath of tragedy. The high caliber cast frequently generates charged results, and like Penn’s 1991 debut, “The Indian Runner,” his roots as an actor are apparent in the film’s assiduous focus on performance. But the material too often escapes his grasp as both writer and director, making the broodingly intense drama an uneven, rather flat experience. Miramax faces a challenge in guiding the film far into the mainstream marketplace.

The screen reunion of Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, despite their having relatively few scenes together, supplies the drama with a considerable share of its power. Sparks ignite especially in a scene where their characters — a long-separated husband and wife — look back on rosier times, inevitably recalling the former couple’s off-camera history.

Nicholson plays Freddy Gale, a jeweler whose marriage dissolved and whose life took a seemingly irrevocable downturn following an accident in which drunk driver John Booth (David Morse) ran over and killed his 7-year-old daughter. Story picks up six years later, when Booth is released from prison after having done time for manslaughter, and revenge obsessed Freddy resolutely informs his ex-wife, Mary (Huston), of his intention to kill the man.

After his customary evening in the local topless bar, Freddy bursts in on Booth in his trailer. The scene takes on a vaguely comic edge as he fumbles his entry, and a glitch with his gun leaves Booth unharmed. The threatened man reacts calmly, quite clearly wrestling with his own demons, and a three-day reprieve is negotiated, after which Freddy swears he’ll be back.

The deadline hanging over the two men steers them in opposite directions during the interim. Freddy becomes increasingly aggressive, both with his jewelry store customers (a taste of quietly maniacal vintage Nicholson is supplied in a scene with a tetchy woman returning a ring) and with the strippers he rather indifferently carouses with. Booth looks to a sensitive painter, JoJo (Robin Wright), to help him over his crippling guilt. The grace period over, Freddy heads back to kill Booth. On the way, he is pulled over by cops for drunk driving, an irony he points out to his intended victim after bolting off into the night to avoid arrest.

Much of the film plays awkwardly, its tone veering undecidedly between volatile drama and contemplative psychological study. Nowhere is this more of a problem than in the final reels, where Penn’s skills as director are put to the test of covering both physical and emotional ground in a poorly choreographed cross-town chase that leads to a disappointingly maudlin final act at the child’s grave.

The film’s sincerity goes some way toward easing it over its less cohesive passages, but those characters that work do so thanks largely to the resourceful cast, and not to their problematically written roles.

Significantly, the film opens with a group therapy session, and much of the dialogue — particularly the exchanges between Booth and JoJo — sounds like barely dramatized transcripts from such a session, with far too many of the characters’ emotions externalized in belabored terms. The opening sequence — complete with overlaid titles identifying the main characters — feels too much like an incongruously docu-like, John Cassevetes-styled after-thought, perhaps tacked on to bulk up on the psychological grounding motivating the characters.

Pic clicks into place in Nicholson and Huston’s first scene together, which erupts forcefully into violence and recriminations. The film’s most acutely manipulated dramatic shifts are achieved in this and another shared scene later in which Mary responds to Freddy’s pain only to have him attack her again for channeling her grief in a different direction from his.

Nicholson at times is accompanied by a little too much of his own screen persona to completely serve the character, his dangerously lupine glare threatens occasionally to push Freddy too far off-kilter. But the performance is mostly quite a surprising one. The actor ushers in a softer side than has been customary in his roles of late, and his desolately emotional, tearful recap of a dream is one of the film’s most potent moments.

Also remarkable is a scene in which he hides in a child’s bedroom while fleeing from cops and the young girl immediately tunes in to his suffering and protects him. Deglamorized and rather unflatteringly photographed, Huston has less to work with, but with little more than a glance or a turn of her head, she effortlessly communicates the struggle Mary has undertaken to put her derailed life back on track. Morse (who toplined “The Indian Runner”) brings integrity to an unsatisfyingly written part, while Wright seems wasted in a role that remains of peripheral importance.

Of note behind the cameras is the moody soundtrack by Jack Nitzsche, with songs by Bruce Springsteen. Vilmos Zsigmond has shot the film with a suitably harsh, unembellished simplicity. But while the squalor of Freddy’s loveless nocturnal wanderings into the arms of taxi-dancers and strippers is effectively made even more bleak through relentless use of slomo, this and other stylistic touches seem almost random at times.

Ultimately, the film’s texture lacks consistency, and while Penn deserves admiration for both an interest in material and an approach that lie outside the safe zone of commercial certainty, his command as a director remains overshadowed by the work of the talented people with whom he surrounds himself.

The Crossing Guard

Production

A Miramax production and release. Produced by Sean Penn, David S. Hamburger. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Richard Gladstein. Directed, written by Sean Penn.

Crew

Camera (color), Vilmos Zsigmond; editor, Jay Cassidy; music, Jack Nitzsche; production design, Michael Haller; costume design , Jill Ohanneson; sound (Dolby), Per Hallberg; assistant director, Brian W. Cook; casting, Don Phillips. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Aug. 5, 1995. (Also in Toronto Film Festival.) Running time: 114 MIN.

With

Freddy Gale - Jack Nicholson John Booth - David Morse Mary - Anjelica Huston JoJo - Robin Wright Helen Booth - Piper Laurie Stuart Booth - Richard Bradford Roger - Robbie Robertson Bobby - John Savage Verna - Priscilla Barnes Mia - Kari Wuhrer

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