The Crossing Guard

In recent years, Jack Nicholson has pulled himself out of his crowd-pleaser rut. Nicholson spent much of the ’80s coasting; a lot of it was brilliant, entertaining coasting, to be sure, but audiences came to expect the standard Jack tricks — the eyebrows, the insinuating voice that could read from an ingredients label and make it sound dirty, the wild and crazy extremes of rage and contempt. When I saw The Shining on the big screen years after its initial release, once in 1993 and again in 1994, the mostly college-age audience laughed at everything Nicholson said. They couldn’t even wait for him to go nuts; they cracked up at the stuff he said when he was supposed to be normal.

Can such an entertainer ever again be taken seriously as an actor — as someone who wants you to believe he’s someone else? Gradually, Nicholson has been restoring some purity to his performances, even if you had to sit through some turkeys to see the restoration. In the chaotic dud Hoffa, he certainly tried something different; wearing a false nose that threw his whole face out of whack, Nicholson embodied Jimmy Hoffa without a trace of the familiar “Jaaack” — he was playing a tough, monomaniacal bastard. (It was certainly a more daring performance than his audience-tickling mustache-twirling in the contemporaneous A Few Good Men.) In Wolf, a kind of bookend piece to Carnal Knowledge, Nicholson showed considerable subtlety and vulnerability. He seemed to understand that he could no longer play the guy with the biggest cock on the block — that it was a lie, a joke. And in The Crossing Guard, Nicholson unveils what may be his most powerfully naked performance ever. I’d gladly trade all his strutting in Batman and A Few Good Men for the heart-stopping scene in The Crossing Guard when Nicholson, playing a broken man who’s never gotten over the death of his daughter, makes a late-night call to his ex-wife. Desperate for contact, for sanity, for anything, he breaks down until his words blur into a prolonged, anguished wail. It’s probably the wildest, most extreme moment of his career (some members of the audience will be forced to avert their eyes in shocked embarrassment, the way some responded to Marlon Brando’s comparable moment in Last Tango in Paris), a major risk that pays off big.

The movie itself, written and directed by Sean Penn, is dark and literary, sometimes slow, quite often pretentious. I’d be surprised if Penn’s script came in at anything over 80 pages, because he goes in for a lot of brooding close-ups, as well as way too much slow-mo — so much that I felt as if I were underwater. To be blunt, the movie feels padded and awkward. But the awkwardness grew on me. Penn is an honest director, as he always is as an actor. (He could’ve coasted for years on Jeff Spicoli but didn’t.) I came to value the clumsy moments in which Penn seemed to be groping for truth and meaning along with the characters. I’d call him the next John Cassavetes if his movies had Cassavetes’ improvisational spin, but they don’t. As a writer, Penn is like the star student in a fiction-writing class; he presents his themes neatly, with an artistic plainness. The Crossing Guard is about men and their guilt, and the women who want to love them but can’t cut through the guilt and self-hatred.

The plot is simple: A grieving father, Freddy Gale (Nicholson), has sworn to kill John Booth (David Morse), who killed Freddy’s daughter six years ago in a drunk-driving accident. Freddy has waited all these years for Booth to get out of jail, and when he does get out, Freddy comes to visit him with a gun. Revenge will give his life meaning. “I’m a jeweler,” Freddy spits at Booth. “I own a jewelry store. That’s who I am. Do you know what I’m talking about?” Freddy has nothing except long, boozy nights with his cronies at a strip joint; he takes the occasional stripper to bed, but they give him no pleasure — like booze, they just numb his pain for a while. Booth, meanwhile, struggles to live with what he did. “I’m not an unhappy person,” he tells his parents. “I’m a person who has caused unhappiness, who has caused death.” These self-defining moments sum up the best and worst of Penn’s writing: they’re too explicit by half, but they give some sense of the awkwardness of men fighting to understand themselves.

The women who fight to understand the men are a different story. Penn doesn’t neglect them, exactly; the dialogue he gives them is true, and he doesn’t demonize them. And maybe if he’d given them more screen time The Crossing Guard wouldn’t have been a completely different movie, but it would almost certainly be a richer, more balanced one. Freddy’s ex-wife Mary (Anjelica Huston, focused and intense in what amounts to a prolonged three-scene cameo) has hated him since their daughter died; she needed him to be strong for her, and instead he fell apart and fell away. Since their divorce, she’s remarried and tried to move on — he hates her for her ability to move on, and she hates him for his inability to move on. (In six years, Freddy hasn’t even been able to visit the grave.) This is a primal male-female conflict, and Nicholson and Huston — who, as we all know, were together for years before a bitter break — sink their sharpest teeth into it.

But I could have done with less slow-mo Freddy walking down the street and more scenes with Mary and her new family life. Does she, as Freddy suggests, secretly want him to kill Booth? If so, is Freddy meant to be her id — the demon consumed by grief and need, rejecting the comforts of family? The appearance of Robin Wright as an artist who’s uneasily attracted to Booth likewise raises more questions than it answers. Wright has made quite a career of getting stuck with screw-ups and psychos (Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride, abusive hippies in Forrest Gump), so she’s equipped to make us understand why an intelligent woman would want to get involved with a man with an obvious gallery of flaws — which is good, because the script is no help. She’s in the movie, basically, to tell Booth to get over himself and embrace life, not death.

That’s the lesson of the movie — again, perhaps too neatly presented. But if the scheme of the film is neat, the emotions push it into something messier and more vital. The two self-loathing men face each other, and themselves, over the grave of the girl whose death has deformed them and linked them. Penn takes his time: The climax is drawn out and lumpy, but also moving, like everything else in the movie. Penn seals The Crossing Guard with a gesture that, unlike an identical gesture in Michael Mann’s Heat, has real resonance. The men, confronted with the physical fact of the girl’s death, realize that nothing they can do will undo what has been done; they also realize that their problems go deeper than mourning or guilt. The Crossing Guard takes us beyond pain and grief into something like grace.

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