Picks and Pans Review: The Crossing Guard

updated 11/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

Jack Nicholson, David Morse, Anjelica Huston, Robin Wright

In his second outing as a screenwriter and director (the first was 1991's The Indian Runner), Sean Penn has made a maddeningly uneven film. It's maddening in the same way that John Cassavetes' films used to be: parts are so good, while others, self-indulgent actorly scenes that drag on too long (and the directorial equivalent, moody shots of bridges at sunrise), are as flaccid as wilted celery.

Here, Nicholson, in a wrenchingly dark performance, plays a man obsessed with killing the drunk driver (Morse) who mowed down his young daughter. In the years since her death, Nicholson has become a dissolute wreck, spending more time nuzzling strippers and Jack Daniels bottles than running his jewelry store. When Morse, still racked with guilt but hoping to get on with his life, is sprung after five years in jail, Nicholson sets out to shoot him. "That is my job in life," he tells his ex-wife (Huston, mesmerizing as always, but underused).

The main plotline—will he kill him or won't he?—is the stuff of melodrama, but it is during the movie's side trips that Penn scores most of his points. Take the rendezvous between Nicholson, emotionally disintegrating, and Huston in the late-night, fluorescent glare of a coffee shop. "I've been so goddamned angry at you for so long that I couldn't hear you," she says (our knowledge that these two were once a couple in real life adds, of course, to the scene's poignancy).

The Crossing Guard doesn't always work but, as Willie Loman's wife said of her late husband—a character whom Nicholson echoes in an even more desperate, '90s kind of way—attention must be paid. (R)

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