The Crossing Guard [DVD]
Screenplay : Sean Penn
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1995
Stars : Jack Nicholson (Freddy Gale), David Morse (John Booth), Anjelica Huston (Mary), Robin Wright (Jojo), Piper Laurie (Helen Booth), Richard Bradford (Stuart Booth), Priscilla Barnes (Verna), David Baerwald (Peter), Robbie Robertson (Roger), John Savage (Bobby), Kari Wuhrer (Mia)
In Sean Penn's tortured revenge drama "The Crossing Guard," Jack Nicholson plays Freddy Gale, a man who has been waiting six years for the man who killed his seven-year-old daughter in a drunk-driving accident to be released from prison. Freddy's intention is to kill the man who ended his daughter's life, but somehow you sense that there is much more to it than that. Freddy is a man on the edge, and his life seems squandered and pointless when the film opens. Does he truly think this act of revenge will heal his wounds, or is the deranged revenge fantasy merely one more symptom of his broken life?
"The Crossing Guard" would have been a much better film if these themes had come out more clearly in a shorter, more focused form. As written and directed by Sean Penn (whose directorial debut was 1991's "The Indian Runner"), "The Crossing Guard" is intriguing without being truly absorbing. Everything about the film is interesting in theory. It's an abstract motion picture, where the ideas grab your attention, but the characters remain frustratingly distant.
Actually, that's not entirely true. Even though the focus of the movie is not directly on him, David Morse cuts a striking, sympathetic figure as John Booth, the young, working-class man whose horrible mistake caused the death of Freddy's daughter. Morse is a towering, bulky actor, but he has the soft, amiable face. He is something of a gentle giant, with his boyish face hidden behind a scruffy goatee and a man of shaggy, slicked back hair. Morse does an excellent job of projecting Booth's pain and guilt, and we understand that he is not a bad man. Rather, he is a decent man who did a bad thing.
Other characters float in and out of the narrative, but none of them make much of a lasting impression. Freddy spends a great deal of time drinking away his misery at a topless bar, and he goes home with a procession of dancers in a sad attempt to use casual sex to cover over the pain in his life. Robin Wright ("Forrest Gump") drifts into the story as an artist with whom John becomes involved, but she never quite registers as a person. Instead, she comes off as a narrative device through which John's intense guilt can be clarified.
We meet Freddy's ex-wife, Mary (Anjelica Huston), who deals with the pain of loss by going to group therapy meetings. Mary has moved on in her life; she is remarried and is taking care of her and Freddy's two young boys, who are so distant from their father that they refer to him by his first name. There is a touching scene at the end of the movie where Freddy and Mary get together in an all-night diner, but, like he does with everyone in his life, Freddy ends up driving her away with his bitterness.
Perhaps the central problem with "The Crossing Guard" is Jack Nicholson. Nicholson is one of the greatest actors of our time, but he simply does not work in this movie. His performance seems uncomfortable and mannered, and he never gets to the heart of what makes Freddy tick. There are a few inapt Jack Nicholson moments, such as when he lights into a woman at his jewelry store who is complaining that she was given the wrong size ring. It's a funny, sadistic moment of pure Nicholson wrath, but it doesn't fit in this movie. It strikes a chord with Nicholson as an actor, but not with Freddy as a character. The role of Freddy requires an actor who is better at projecting pain and anguish. Nicholson has almost become too much of a confident caricature of himself to pull off a role that requires a great deal of weakness.
In his sophomore effort as a director, Penn shows a flair for setting up and executing scenes, but he lets the movie go off in too many directions, and he loads it down with unnecessary pathos via an overbearing soundtrack and a heavy reliance on slow motion. This should be the kind of movie where the performers bring to the surface the emotions that drive the narrative, but far too often Penn feels the need to employ flashy stylistic devices to fill in the gaps. The result is a film that should be a moving exploration of loss and vengeance that winds up being more at a loss itself.
16x9 Enhanced: No
Audio: 5.1 Dolby Surround
Extras: Running audio commentary from director Sean Penn, actors Anjelica Huston and David Morse, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, production designer Michael Haller, and novelist/playwright David Rabe
All around this is a solid disc. Not too fancy, but it has the basics. The picture is good and sharp; it really shows off noted cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond's beautiful photography. The 5.1 Dolby soundtrack is rarely taxed into use, but there are a few moments with deep, rumbling bass that comes out clear and strong.
Although I didn't like the film all that much, I found the running audio commentary on this disc to be particularly insightful and fascinating. It's rare that so many of those who worked on the film contribute to an audio commentary, and it was great to hear not only how writer/director Sean Penn envisioned the film, but how two of the major actors got into their characters. This is why running audio commentaries are so wonderful and why they should become standard issue on DVDs.
©1999 James Kendrick