Sean Penn is a terrific actor, but is that all it really takes to become a memorable film director?
Yes and no. It certainly doesn't hurt that Penn has a rabid appreciation for craft, in addition to working with some of the most acclaimed thespians the world over. His understanding of the skill involved in great film acting (both his own and that of the people he directs) borders on the preternatural.
Penn's 1995 tension filled-drama The Crossing Guard falls into some amateurish territory at times (with bizarrely maudlin and faux-artsy camera work), but when it comes to generously giving his company their respective moments, Penn excels. Each actor appearing here is able to register fully with the viewer, even when his or her screen time is brief. Case in point is Priscilla Barnes (who, at one point in her career replaced Suzanne Somers on Three's Company), playing the emotionally bruised stripper pal of a central character. She has maybe two scenes but conveys a lifetime of hurt within them. The same goes for veteran character actors Piper Laurie and Richard Bradford, who also really pop out in their cameos. Penn, with even the slightest performance, clearly defines the role for the viewer. It is an apparent generosity that undermines his gruff, outspoken reputation and his penchant for lurid, pulpy material.
The story is simple: a man (David Morse) kills the young daughter of a jeweler and his wife in a drinking and driving accident. He goes to jail and is let out after five years. Played by former paramours Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, (who has only four scenes in the entire film, but remains a constant, strong presence. When paired against her longtime real-life love, after a huge personal scandal, her hurt and bitterness seem even more poignant), the couple goes their separate ways: she tries to better her life while he just disintegrates. He is hell bent on killing the man who killed his little girl. The actors fully explore the dark corners of guilt and rage and are able to show quite clearly all of the fractures a trauma can cause to anyone connected. I really liked that Penn chose to explore all of the possible paths that grief can lead to and how it affects everyone in such a radically different way. The parallels to Penn's other 1995 work, Dead Man Walking, where he played a murderer on Death Row, are evident: the films have a similar tone that don't come off preachy despite their explosive subject matter. Each film is courageous enough to let whoever watches them to make up their own mind.
In the past, I have not been the biggest fan of Nicholson's work, which for many film lovers borders on sacrilege. I find him slightly overrated, with a few bright exceptions (Ironweed and Penn's follow-up to The Crossing Guard, The Pledge, being two of my favorites). His hostility towards his ex-wife, himself and Morse's character are intense and wholly realized. He packs such nuance into the most ordinary gestures here and in scenes of extreme cliché he stays grounded. I felt like this was something deeply personal for the actor to do. His range, along with the sheer truth of this emotion is staggering. What is fascinating about Nicholson, in his later career stage, is watching the actor eagerly shed his own outrageous persona and going into completely foreign territory as a performer. Like him or not, Nicholson must be given credit for his ability to make risky choices.
My favorite of the cast, by far, was Morse. When I first saw this film, I wasn't sure how the story would work (after all, we are expected to sympathize with a very unlikable situation and man) but Morse plays everything so subtly (which is something he has done again and again as a performer, perfecting the type most notably in 2000's Dancer in the Dark). He is so wounded by his actions and his guilt that it cripples him. For such an imposing man, he manages to cut right to the heart of this character that made a terrible error in judgment and will pay for it for the rest of his life. It's a brilliantly thought-out, incredibly detailed performance that defines the old line "you can't judge a book by its cover" as Morse turns in one surprise after the next.
While the cast was really shockingly good and the story serviceable, ultimately Penn as a director falls flat, as he did with his first effort The Indian Runner. He has the ability to wrest interesting performances from not only his principles but also his ancillary cast and does a really good job exploring the bare bones of the script through character; but ultimately his visual style meanders and is sort of blasé. No matter, there will always be a line at his door when he begins casting on a new movie. If all else fails, he can always fall back on his career of being a great actor himself.