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Once upon a time, a seven year old girl was run over by a drunk driver. He stopped, watched her die, and then drove off.
Jack Nicholson plays the father of that girl, a man so consumed with grief that his marriage falls to pieces. He falls into a Sinner's Chasm -- drinking constantly, sleeping with strippers from a club he patronizes. He allows himself no pleasure - not even while taking the pleasures of the flesh (he's too boozed up to feel either the physical or the emotional) living only for the day when he can exact his revenge on the killer of his daughter. That day is marked in red on a calendar on the wall. On that day he will kill the man who killed his little girl.
The wife (Angelica Huston) has remarried and is raising the two remaining children from that failed marriage. There is a new husband (Robbie Robertson), a kind of "let's have some coffee and talk this all out" kind of guy. There are group therapy sessions, to deal with the grief of losing a child. There is life.
As for the "killer". Well, it was a drunk driving accident. Compounded by the hit and run. And, save for an important story element which I will not reveal here, David Morse (from TV's St. Elsewhere) as John Booth makes no excuses and will not forgive himself, either. He moves quietly through the film, pseudo-Christ-like, bearing his sins and waiting for the release of death. And in the three day period while waiting for that death, for Nicholson's character has told him it is coming, he meets a woman who could save him (Robin Wright of Forrest Gump). But, as she tells him, she "cannot compete with his guilt."
And that interesting setup, rife with emotional possibilities, plays itself out in the first thirty minutes of The Crossing Guard. From there on there's nowhere to go. The three day period you watch on the screen feels like three days. The silence is overwhelming.
Silence, to an actor, can be a good thing. A stage actor can use silence to manipulate the emotions of a text, to move along or to slow a piece down. On stage, silence can be the most powerful tool in a actor's arsenal.
In film, the director must rely on his instinct to create those spaces artificially, and it is here that The Crossing Guard fails. Sean Penn, the actor, knows this. (And so, btw, does Cranky, who used to be...) Sean Penn, the director, can't replicate it on film. And it is unfortunate that The Crossing Guard comes out now, two years after it's completion. For Penn has learned a lot in the last two years.
I'm talking like a film student, lets get down to nitty gritty.
The script allows little development of character above and beyond the basics. The few scenes that have something to work with are torn into by Nicholson and Huston. Even in these they are let down by an editing blade that either falls too quickly, or doesn't fall at all.
By the film's end Penn moves his scenes in real time, and he is let down by a script which presents little more than the characterizations I've already written about. Characters bond when they have shown no reason why they should. Emotional revelations apopear as if out of whole cloth. They do not move the story along, nor do they provide more insight into the characters.
The damned thing is, there must have been something in the Penn's script that compelled actors of the stature and ability of Nicholson and Huston to participate in the making of The Crossing Guard. Whatever that was, it has not made it to the screen.
Which means that somewhere near New York University is a coffee bar where the film students drink double espresso with cappucino chasers, and it is there that you will find film aficionados trying to fill in the gaps in The Crossing Guard. They sat through the film. I sat through the film. But most of the audience in New York's Angelika Film Center (not all that far from NYU) walked out.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price for The Crossing Guard, he would have paid . . .
Rental is probably a good idea. The first half hour is gripping, the last half hour concludes the story, the middle hour unfortunately provides very little.
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