Acting carries 'Crossing' Several outstanding performances make up for Sean Penn's shortcomings as a new director in this story of grief out of control.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The flaws of "The Crossing Guard" are manifold, but they do not really detract from its cardinal virtue: It is about something.

That is, about something in the classic movie sense, mounting a thematic ambition on the armature of a great performance and taking us where we haven't been before. Possibly we don't want to go there, but that's our fault, not the movie's.

The theme is grief, its permanence, its weight, its power to corrode the souls of the innocent until they are as guilty as the guilty. The great performance is Jack Nicholson's as a man so crucified by the emotion he's turned his life into a downward spiral toward oblivion so mean-spirited and pointless it's weirdly impressive in a nihilistic way.

Nicholson plays Freddy Gale, father, divorcee, jeweler, all around maximum death-wish dude and wannabe killer. The man he wants to kill is William Booth (David Morse), just released from the penitentiary after serving six years on a charge of manslaughter. One night, drunk, Booth felt his car bump something. Getting out, he discovered a little girl -- Gale's oldest daughter, who would grow no older. The event has shattered virtually all the lives it's touched, and the writer-director Sean Penn (yes, the actor) is clinical in exploring the devastation. The brilliance of the movie, however, is that Morse's character Booth, far from being a murderer, turns out to be a decent man just as shattered as the father.

Thus "The Crossing Guard" is an odd existential thriller of sorts. It chronicles two damned pilgrims in search of a redemption the universe cannot allow: Freddy's, as he tries to convince himself that he's a man who can kill; and Booth's, as he tries to convince himself he wants to die.

In a sense it's reminiscent of Mike Figgis' more brilliant (but as yet unopened in Baltimore) "Leaving Los Vegas," in which two doomed people bond as they are swirled down the drain, accept the trajectory that each life is taking, and become friends without really trying to change each other. Figgis has more guts: His movie ends on a chilly blast of the inevitable, where the younger and less mature Penn cooks up something that doesn't quite work as redemption as it edges dangerously toward the sentimental.

Small matter. This movie is trying to do something big and rare in American movies, and one can tell that its cast believes in it. Nicholson, alternately strutting with rage and crushed with regret, is a man so close to going under it's a miracle he can get up in the morning. Morse is more quietly spectacular as a man aware of his own moral exile from the rest of humanity, even when that humanity is unaware of it. He knows in his heart that he hasn't been punished enough, and a part of him yearns for purification through suffering and death.

But uniformly the performances are exquisite, particularly Anjelica Huston as Freddy's ex-wife, who cannot bring herself to bless his mission of revenge, thereby infuriating him. When she and Nicholson have a last conversation in a restaurant, Penn just lets it run on and on and on, beyond bathos toward squalor. It's the act of a very brave director who isn't afraid of being called foolish.

He's defiantly anti-commercial, and this film isn't for the summer movie soldier or the sunshine cineste -- another sign of either the director's bravery or foolishness. The movie is painfully slow, and Penn can be over-indulgent both to himself (and his script) and to his actors.

He lets scenes run on, well past any point to them. The over-reliance on stylized slow-mo sequences also grows extremely annoying after the 38th time; someone ought to tape the camera speed selector on his Panavision.

He errs, too, I think, in ascribing to Nicholson's Freddy Gale a kind of self-abasement that finds its clearest form of expression in strip bars. Though such places indeed reek of the disinfectant-rich squalor that is the perfect symbol of Freddy's ordeal by grief, the milieu also offers the young director a chance to show a suspiciously high number of nude dancers.

But Penn knows what counts over the long haul, which is letting the actors act. When Nicholson, in a state of bourbonized grandeur, has an epiphany through the fog and lets his face break into a look of such wannabe rage and self-hatred it makes you think of Oedipus on a bad hair day, you know what you're seeing isn't business as usual. It isn't much, but it's something.

"The Crossing Guard"

Starring Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston

Directed by Sean Penn

Relased by Miramax

Rated R. (Profanity, nudity, some violence)

***

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