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‘Crossing Guard’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 01, 1995


Sean Penn
Jack Nicholson;
Angelica Huston;
David Morse;
Robin Wright;
Robbie Robertson
language and adult situations

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Sean Penn's potent, emotionally complex "The Crossing Guard" surpasses his engrossing directorial debut, "The Indian Runner." Here the director—who also wrote the script—deals with the issue of drunk driving, specifically with the death of a 7-year-old girl and its effect on her parents—Freddy and Mary Gale (Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston)—and the man who killed her. But the drunk-driving issue isn't nearly as important to Penn as the deeper themes of loss and forgiveness.

At the beginning of the film, John Booth (David Morse) is being released after serving five years in prison. He's done his time, but time hasn't lightened the burden of guilt over the girl's death.

Part of what makes "The Crossing Guard" so gripping and un-'90s-like is Penn's absolute reliance on his characters and the actors who play them. It's character- rather than plot-driven. The people here aren't heroes or villains; they're authentically human. Booth isn't a killer; he's a decent working stiff who made a mistake. And the knowledge that he has taken a life burns inside him.

The destruction caused by Booth's recklessness isn't limited to the victim. In the aftermath of the accident, Freddy has allowed himself to become overwhelmed by grief and anger. Mary wants to move on, but Freddy can't let go of his obsession. He wants revenge. By the time Booth gets out of jail, Freddy and Mary have already divorced, and Mary is with her second husband (played with mellow assurance by Robbie Robertson). But when Freddy gets wind that "the murderer" is a citizen again, he bulls into Mary's house to let her know that he's going to kill the guy. Kill him for the both of them.

"Madness," Mary screams. But Freddy calls her bluff. When she reads in the paper that Booth has been killed, she's going to feel pride, he says. Pride and relief.

That night when Freddy enters Booth's trailer, he has a gun in his hand and is ready to use it. But (aside from the pistol not working) Freddy is disarmed by something in Booth's manner. Even after five years in jail, Booth isn't any surer that he deserves to live than Freddy is.

The end result of the encounter is that Freddy gives Booth three days to live—and himself three days to think. During that time, Penn draws us deeper and deeper into the private miseries of these survivors. As Booth, Morse seems almost visibly imprisoned by his pain. Muscled-up dramatically from his days on "St. Elsewhere," Morse is a hulking, tragic figure; the whole weight of the world seems to rest on his shoulders.

In Freddy's case, the weight has settled in his face—or rather in Nicholson's. Freddy had dedicated himself completely to his daughter; she was all he had, he says. And Nicholson does a masterly job of bringing us to a man in search of a reason to go on living. Penn's open, exploratory approach with actors matches Nicholson's style perfectly, and you can see the star rising to the opportunity. Or maybe it's being paired again with Huston. Whatever the reason, Nicholson gives his most sustained, emotionally naked performance in a decade.

As good as Nicholson is, Huston matches him. And together they are magical. The scene in which these old lovers relive old times is easily the most sublime movie moment of the year. Amazingly, the scenes between Morse and Robin Wright, who plays Booth's girlfriend, are almost equally affecting.

The current of bereavement never flags even when the dramatic flood becomes stagnant. In every scene, Penn seems to know precisely where the nugget of feeling is hidden, and he doesn't let up until its uncovered. He pushes on, even in the face of his characters' pain. The result is devastating. And, even rarer, true.

The Crossing Guard is rated R for language and adult situations.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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