The Crossing Guard (1995)7/10
Most films you see nowadays are directed from a very logical standpoint: the plot is mapped out and it's followed to a T, and the ending neatly wraps things up so that when you leave the theater, you feel relieved that things worked out. But every now and then, a film-maker will make a picture from a purely emotional standpoint. Rather than creating a structured outline, he'll rely on the ambiance of each scene to compose a more true to life -- if at times incoherent -- piece of storytelling. The Crossing Guard is such a film. Directed by actor-turned-film-maker Sean Penn (whose first effort was 1991's The Indian Runner), it is a meandering, ponderous movie about grief and the value of life, and while at times it seems unbalanced, the end result is quite stunning. The film opens with what may appear to be a perplexing correlation: first we see a woman sitting silently in a support group for parents who lost their children, and then we cut to a man drinking heavily in a strip bar. The woman is Mary (played by Anjelica Huston), and the man is Freddy Gale (played by Jack Nicholson), and together they were the parents of a little girl who was killed in a car accident by a drunk driver named John (Wilkes?) Booth (played by David Morse, who was also in The Indian Runner). And while they may be dealing with it in totally different ways, they are both having difficulty coping with the loss of their child. But when John is released from prison, Freddy suddenly announces to his now ex-wife Mary that he will kill him in an attempt to relieve their pain. The premise is indeed stale, but by showing it in such a different light than its similar predecessors, Penn manages to create genuine intensity from what would otherwise be another Death Wish sequel. Nicholson delivers yet another amazing performance, and after seeing him in so many tough roles, it is truly shattering to watch him break down in tears. And while I personally felt that Morse was miscast, he still does a terrific job with the role. Anjelica Huston and Robin Wright Penn are top-notch, but honorary mention must be given to Priscilla Barnes ("Three's Company," Licence to Kill), whose subtle grace makes her near-insignificant character beam with humanity. Also, keep your eyes peeled for an appearance by Piper Laurie (Children of a Lesser God, "Twin Peaks") as John's loving mother. In the end, The Crossing Guard is a film about family: all of the characters' actions are done out of love, which brings Freddy's dilemma over whether or not to avenge his daughter more close-to-home than it might otherwise have been. Penn's direction is excellent, but at times he tries a little too hard to provoke emotions that don't come naturally. The Crossing Guard isn't quite as powerful as it wants to be, but it comes very close. It's one of the most over-looked pictures of the decade.
SIDE-NOTE: In a scene where Priscilla Barnes is pouring her heart out to Nicholson while he's lying in bed smoking a cigarette, there's a close-up of his hand, and you'll notice that he has a ring on his ring finger. Later on in the film, when he and his ex-wife are talking in a diner, the ring is still there ... but it has switched to his pinky finger. This is the kind of absolute characterization that makes The Crossing Guard more special than you might think it to be upon first glance.