At the heart of this moody, melancholic drama is an incredible casting coup: Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, ex-lovers in real life, play ex-spouses who pick over the pieces of their shattered relationship with regret, recrimination and tears. Nicholson and Huston have worked together before, in Prizzi’s Honor. But in The Crossing Guard, under the intimate direction of their friend Sean Penn, they unleash a raw, emotional power that surpasses anything either of them has done before. In fact, their scenes have such shocking resonance that the rest of the movie seems pale in comparison.
The film, which Penn also scripted, is about anger, guilt and compassion. Nicholson embodies the anger. He plays Freddy, an embittered jeweller obsessed with avenging the death of his young daughter by a hit-and-run driver—he has vowed to kill the man as soon as he is released from prison. The driver, a remorseful soul named John (David Morse), embodies the guilt. And Freddy’s ex-wife, Mary (Huston), who has remarried since their daughter’s death, serves up the compassion.
From the opening images, which cut between Freddy watching a stripper caress herself with a flaming torch and Mary taking part in a therapy group, Penn spells out his characters’ moral choices in stark relief. Framed by a new Bruce Springsteen dirge titled Missing, the story is set in a desolate Los Angeles. And, like Penn’s first movie, The Indian Runner (1991), his second feature plumbs the darkness on the edge of Springsteen’s America—a heartland without a heartbeat Penn’s haunting, atmospheric style occasionally grates. And the director veers off on some pointless tangents, notably a dumb romantic subplot involving Robin Wright (his ex-wife). But the lead performances are superb. Once the collision-course drama finally kicks in, The Crossing Guard achieves a level of compelling pathos.
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