THE CROSSING GUARD (1995) **
I cannot help but think that Sean Penn, for the second film he directed (after "The Indian Runner") was inspired by Claude Chabrol's very good and quite well-known drama, "This Man Must Die" (1970). In the French movie, a father sets out to find and kill the hit-and-run driver who had killed his young son.
In the Penn film, the seven-year old daughter of Freddy Gale (Jack Nicholson) and Mary (Anjelica Huston) was killed by drunk driver John Booth (David Morse). When John is released from jail after serving six years, Freddy sets out to kill him. When Freddy faces John and something goes wrong with the gun, John asks for a two-day reprieve during which Freddy can think if he really wants to shoot him. "I'll give you three days" is the answer.
Neatly balancing out vengeful Freddy is guilty John. Not merely sorrowful and contrite but carrying a colossal burden of guilt, one that's spelled out and underlined at every turn, one that is in fact a kind of death wish. We get too much of the despair of both men, especially since John always speaks haltingly in a low-pitched monotone that's like a big whisper. Even in the short run, this fatigues us, as do as too many silences pregnant with meanings that are either repetitious or unclear.
The movie is interesting but relies too little on script and too heavily on the excellent photography of a master, Hungarian-born Vilmos Szigmond, and the moody production design of Daniel Haller, whose track record is very good. (I wonder whether Californian Haller is related to the late, classic cinematographer Ernest Haller who died in a 1970 car accident). Together, those two artists create an atmosphere of somberness and emptiness, stress night scenes, artificial light, chiaroscuro interiors and, even in daylight, the feel of loneliness. On the other hand, the artsy editing and acting that go from the theatrical to the "sub-texted" are less welcome.
More than anything, the film leans very heavily on Jack Nicholson. The premise here is that Freddy, who owns a small jewelry store, went to pieces after the child's death. He is a man with an attitude that includes impatience with the weaknesses of others, harshness and irascibility. All that goes with chain-smoking and major boozing. Freddy's milieu is one of strip-joints, like "Dreamland" where his bed mates work.
Nicholson can play convincingly lonely, alienated, weird, pugnacious and raging characters. So convincingly, indeed, that our familiarity with the many faces of Jack may makes us conscious of watching acting more than life. Yet that's not the movie's weakest point. The flaw here is that as a writer, Sean Penn gets too fancy, soulful, "philosophical" and sometimes tackily low-life. More seriously, it is never made clear whether Freddy's desire for revenge is its own entity; whether it came upon him early on or recently; which came first and caused the other, the drinking or the despair; whether or not there is history of Freddy having always been unhinged.
The main clue we get is when well into the film, in a dark cafe, there's a "friendly" meeting of Freddy and his now remarried ex-wife Mary (echoes of the real-life Nicholson-Huston relationship). She tells him "When Eve died you became small and weak. I needed someone big and strong."
More of Penn's weaknesses. John is in the car with a pal who's found him a job and arranged for a party with several girls. He suddenly asks John: "In the joint, did you get violated?" (My euphemism). John: "It only hurts the first time." This exchange is followed by cross-cutting between the party (where a woman improbably discourses on compassion) and a fancy restaurant where Freddy has invited three hookers. There is much that is unnecessary and unedifying in those sequences. And when Robin Wright, in the underwritten part of Jojo, plays an improbably "nice" and "clean" artist in a society of broads, and falls for John, and speaks of his puppy-like eyes, writer Penn is combining cliches with an unlikely mix of societal types.
There are some good inventions. The quiet relationship between John and his parents; the talkative, deranged lady who speaks to John in a bus; the surreal sight of a stripper dressed in a Shirley Temple outfit and singing "The Good Ship Lollipop"; a hooker serenading John at his place via song and electronic keyboard (she must be one of those fallen girls from better society); the amicable Freddy-Mary meeting mentioned earlier unexpectedly climaxing with Freddy exploding:" I hope you die. I hope you f.... die."
"The Crossing Guard" is a mixed picture until the closure which is a total cop-out, illogical in topography and timing, with too many coincidences, clichés and sentimentality, all embarrassing to watch. A pity, because in spite of several arid, dull stretches, the movie has enough going for it to set it apart from run-of-the-mill productions.