By Owen Gleiberman
February 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
  • Movie

Sean Penn‘s third film as a director is a psychological murder mystery in which the central character is at once investigator, possible suspect, and angst-ridden carrier of the world’s woes, and damned if Penn doesn’t draw you inside this labyrinth of existential murk. When the mutilated body of an 8-year-old girl is found in the Nevada snow, Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson), a weary, just-retired homicide detective, stays on the case. Nicholson gives a haunting and ravaged performance, and Penn shows real flair — for visual suspense, for holding his actors in the throes of slow-motion breakdown. Yet as the film slides from the intriguing to the contrived, the events acquire a metaphysical vagueness.