The Crossing Guard

on November 17, 1995 by Kevin Courrier
   Screened at Toronto. When John Booth (David Morse) exits prison after a six-year stay for the drunk-driving manslaughter of a young girl, he's looking to put his life back together. The girl's father, Freddy Gale (Jack Nicholson), is looking for payback. Gale's life fell apart after the accident; first, he lost his wife (Anjelica Huston) and surviving children to another man (Robbie Robertson), and he's then wasted away by drinking and whoring in strip clubs. "The Crossing Guard" puts both men on a collision course in which one attempts to transcend his guilt and the other seeks revenge on the guilty.
   Nicholson gives a powerhouse performance, but it comes out of a whirling delirium; what should have been the rudder is missing, in that the audience is given no idea what his daughter meant to him. Morse doesn't allow his Booth enough emotional range to illuminate what the tragedy cost him. The movie's anchor is Huston, despite her having only a few brief scenes.
   This second feature from actor-turned-filmmaker Sean Penn ("The Indian Runner," which also starred Morse) is a failure of good intentions. Penn is trying to make a movie that demonstrates compassionate understanding of what loss does to everyone involved, but by concentrating the drama solely on the anguish suffered on both sides of this tragedy Penn doesn't sufficiently flesh out the characters themselves so that we feel the tension of Gale's need for vengeance. Penn instead goes for mood and atmosphere, which dampens the film's power.    Starring Jack Nicholson, Angelica Huston, David Morse and Robin Wright. Directed and written by Sean Penn. Produced by David S. Hamburger and Sean Penn. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated R for sexuality and strong language. Running time: 117 min.
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