Owen Gleiberman
November 24, 1995 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Crossing Guard

Current Status
In Season
Anjelica Huston, Jack Nicholson
Sean Penn
David Rabe, Sean Penn

We gave it an B-

The second film written and directed by Sean Penn is, like his first, The Indian Runner (1991), a self-conscious anthem to macho despair — it’s yet another tale of two men torn (and bound together) by violence. Jack Nicholson gives a powerful performance as Freddy Gale, a Los Angeles jewelry-store owner who has been living in hell ever since his 7-year-old daughter was killed by a drunken driver. To lance the boil of his rage, he becomes obsessed with murdering the man responsible, a young blue-collar hulk (David Morse) who has served six years for manslaughter and emerges from prison so racked with guilt that he actually wants Freddy to kill him. Penn orchestrates a mood of brooding naturalistic languor that owes much to the psychodramatic cinema of the early ’70s, and he shows a rare gift for working with actors. He coaxes a soul-torn grief out of Nicholson that’s shocking to behold, and Morse, who suggests a burlier version of Jon Voight, has a gentle-giant melancholy that borders on grace. The Crossing Guard is a work of talent and, on occasion, raw passion, but it’s also a willed exercise in purgative alienation (imagine Death Wish remade by Michelangelo Antonioni). What’s more, so many of the film’s details — late-night whiskey binges, fistfights, scenes set at a grimy strip club — echo Penn’s own infamous tabloid antics that, at times, he seems to be flirting with a kind of guttersnipe chic.

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