Grief makes you crazy. Literally.
After his daughter is killed in a hit-and-run accident, Freddy Gale (Jack Nicholson) is left, unsurprisingly, heartbroken. He drinks a lot, goes berserk, and yeah, patiently waits the day that the driver John Booth (David Morse) is out of jail. It’s something that no one around Freddy can support – not even his ex-wife (Anjelica Huston) – but Freddy doesn’t need their support. He’s grieving and he is in desperate need of said grief to go away, so that when the day comes around to taking care of business, he can do so with a happy mind. Eventually, Booth does get out of prison and he’s come to terms with his accident; he’s apologetic and regretful, and honestly, just wants to move on. He gets a job, starts going to meetings, stays away from bad stuff, and oh yeah, he’s even got himself a girlfriend (Robin Wright). Still though, Freddy doesn’t care. The past six years have been nothing but hell for him and he’s going to let John know it, by any means necessary.
The Crossing Guard is a tad bit different from Sean Penn’s the Indian Runner, in that it does have a slower, more melodic story to work with again, but this time around, he’s actually developing something about it. As opposed to just giving us something resembling a story, things resembling characters, and issues resembling conflicts, everything matters and is exactly what it seems. There’s conflict, there’s development, there’s characters, and above all else, there’s a drive.
Where that drive ends up may be problematic, but hey, at least it’s going somewhere in the first place.
Where Penn gets the most mileage here is out of the cast, all of whom are terrific. Nicholson’s Freddy is one of the most dramatic and dressed-down performances the man has ever given and it’s a surprise how well he pulls it off, without much of any of the usual gimmicks to be found. His dark persona does work for this character, as we know that there’s something truly upsetting and mean about this character, but there’s also a lot more sadness to him than anything. We see it come out in honest, shocking ways, that show Nicholson can work well, even if he is sort of playing a bit against-type.
Then again, with Nicholson, was he ever a “type”?
Anyway, Huston gets some solid moments, too, as the ex-wife who, essentially, just yells and hollers a lot. But hey, she does it like a pro. David Morse’s John is also more sympathetic than he would have been in other movies, but it still works to Morse’s skill-set, as we get to see a heart and soul behind the sadness and darkness. We never fully get to know the demons lying inside of this guy, but the ones that we do see and identify, are still interesting. Robin Wright is also fine as his supposed love-interest, who may mean more to the overall story, but mostly, just seems like someone to be there for Morse’s character when all is said and done.
As for the rest of the movie itself, it’s still pretty good, but we also get the sense that Penn himself is constantly growing and learning as a writer/director. Here, with the Crossing Guard, he gets the idea of grief down perfectly and realizes that it’s not us ourselves who make us the most sad in these troubling times, but those around them. Penn doesn’t hide away from the fact that what this Freddy guy is dealing with is some pretty brutal stuff, and rather than trying to sugar-coat as a Lifetime after-school special, he films it in all of its raw, unabashed irony. It’s quite a surprise to get in a movie such as this, and shows that Penn, when he’s not telling a meaningful story, is also not backing down from approaching his story in a much harder manner.
The issues is that by the final act, things get a little screwy. It’s hard to say how, or why, for any of these matters, but just know that the Crossing Guard does eventually dive into thriller-territory and it feels odd. It’s as if Penn himself was so enamored with the character-drama, that he also sort of felt obligated to deliver on the action and supposed violence that a tale like this would promise. It’s a shame, too, because the message it delivers at the end is a smart and meaningful one.
It’s just a shame it had to go through that last act to get there.
Consensus: With pitch perfect performances across the board, the Crossing Guard works as a smart, disturbing look at grief and depression, but also botches its final act.
7.5 / 10