Nicholson plays Freddy Gale, a small-time L.A. jeweler whose 7-year-old daughter was run down and killed by a drunk driver. As the movie opens, the catastrophe is six years in the past -- an interval in which Freddy has broken up with his wife, Mary (Huston), and allowed his life to reduce to a single idea: killing the driver when he's released from prison.
For the movie's first 15 minutes Nicholson speaks in a soft, raspy voice that sounds like a big zipper opening. He seems listless, almost drugged, yet he's still Nicholson, and he still radiates danger. There's no doubt he'll go off eventually -- and he does, at the home Mary now shares with a benign but spineless man named Roger (Robbie Robertson).
Nicholson still gives great tantrum, but as a whole the scene seems farcical, with wooden "fuck"s and "fuck you"s flying around the room like Nerf balls. Penn is obsessed with filming angry people on the mistaken assumption that fury is per se dramatic, but all he manages to prove is that it's not always dramatic. It's clear that Freddy wants to explode and will do so on the smallest pretext; what isn't clear is why he's full of hot, indigestible hate.
The daughter dying tragically, needlessly? Too mechanical. In Penn's screenplay this is just a device, the excuse he needs to let Nicholson do his raging bull in a china shop. The movie implies that the Gales' marriage began to disintegrate because of the child's death, but this theme is never developed -- probably just as well, because exploring it would require a thorough examination of Freddy's character. And he's not a character, just a human volcano overflowing with bitter lava. There's something almost prurient about the way Penn handles Nicholson, hoping to capture on film one of those titanic, forbidden moments of black passion. For Penn, that's the money shot. Everything else is just a means to get there. It's a pornography of anger and violence, but nothing more.
There's something tragicomic in watching Nicholson breathe life into such an inadequate role. Huston, too, far outperforms the script. With her owlish face and shining black eyes, she's as intense in her way as Nicholson, but her role in the film is entirely reactive. She's a punching bag. When Freddy announces his plan to kill the newly freed driver, she doesn't say, "Don't, or I'll call the police, or a psychiatrist." She just stands there, waiting for the explosion she knows is inevitable -- waiting for her chance to explode back. But he has to pop first.
As John Booth, the driver, David Morse is unrecognizably pumped up from his St. Elsewhere days. Like Huston, he's something of a test dummy, waiting for Nicholson to careen into his life. The script gives him little to do except wait to be killed, though he does find a "love interest," JoJo (Robin Wright), a soulful blonde who cosmically commiserates with him between rounds of sex.
Despite the inadequacies of the setup, the movie does move smartly through a nighttime sequence that begins with Freddy's being pulled over for drunk driving. (Nicholson wears, despite the mild weather, what looks to be the same overcoat he wore as Jack Napier in Batman.) Just as the cops are about to slap on the cuffs, Freddy bolts into dark suburban streets and across neatly trimmed lawns.
There is a sweet moment in the bedroom of a little Asian girl, where Freddy briefly takes refuge from the pursuit. She protects him by calmly lying to her father, and Freddy gives her a good-night kiss that's as genuine as it is unlikely. But this glimpse of Freddy's tender side is unconnected to anything else in the movie, and because he's not a man but a violence machine, the exchange doesn't give him the least pause. Moments later he's roaring through the neighborhood toward Booth's trailer, where a chase begins under the sporadic glare of helicopter searchlights (a strikingly L.A. effect Penn seems to have borrowed from Colors).
The movie's ending is embarrassingly mawkish: graveyard, tears, hands held, view of the city lights. Murder-suicide would have made more sense; it would have been truer to Penn's sense of America as a land not of people but of guns and scotch and strip shows and cigarette smoke and small men on vendettas.
One lesson of The Crossing Guard is that Sean Penn shouldn't be writing his own scripts. He's not very good at it, and anyway American directors no longer need to write their own stuff to claim the grand mantle of auteur. Saying that a movie is "by" a director is like starting a sentence with "hopefully" -- regrettable, but there it is. Sean Penn's next film will be "by" him whether he writes it or not.
Penn certainly has talent as an envisioner of shots. His sense of movies is powerfully visual, and that is a necessary if not sufficient skill in making decent pictures. He can let others provide the narrative architecture and the characters in the round.
There's also an unsettling whiff of chumminess in the casting -- Penn and Nicholson, Nicholson and Huston. Apart from the glare of Hollywood insiderdom spoiling the movie's spell of believability, it is a tricky thing to work with friends, lovers, exes. What is good for personal relations is not necessarily good for professional fortunes: It's harder to tell a friend that he's fucked up by, say, writing a bad script. Or that he shouldn't be writing them at all.
The Crossing Guard opens Fri, Dec. 1, at the Bridge in S.F. and the Shattuck in Berkeley.