Miramax // 1995 // 111 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // January 16th, 2000
Some lives cross, others collide.
A cinematic meditation on retribution, punishment and guilt, The Crossing Guard captures the human cost of a singularly indefensible crime, slowly simmering to the inevitable climax only to let us down in the end.
Crime news is a significant component of the modern television newscast on most local stations. Stories of criminals and their sins are easy to tell, understood by even the most casual audience, and often packing a punch with shocking visuals, unbelievable facts or a compelling emotional context. Sadly, they are also easily forgotten by the next day or even the next newscast as the march of time provides fresh examples to push the previous stories off of center stage. While we may forget the crime, left behind to deal with the aftermath are a small cluster of victims, family members, and the malefactor.
Particularly when the crime is the death of a loved one, few emerge unscathed from the ordeal of pain. Lives are irrevocably changed, personalities alter, and often in inexplicable ways. Such is the charged atmosphere we enter into via The Crossing Guard, where both the victim's family and the felon attempt to deal with the shattering effects of a drunk driving homicide.
Jack Nicholson (As Good As It Gets, Chinatown, Five Easy Pieces) does not merely act, he transforms himself into Freddy Gale, a father whose personal sense of morality takes a crippling blow when his daughter is killed by drunk driver John Booth (David Morse, The Green Mile, The Negotiator, but perhaps best known as Dr. Morrison on "St. Elsewhere.") As he mentions in the commentary, David Morse plays Booth with subtlety, as a man with sympathetic qualities but without giving his crime a whitewash. This is a performance that points out just how underrated (and underutilized) he is. Nicholson and Morse are the balanced center of The Crossing Guard, and it is their acting talent, more so than the story, that makes the film worthwhile.
John Booth has served nearly six years in prison as the film opens. While he retains the air of a decent man, it is very evident that the time in prison has still not been long enough to allow him to come to grips with the enormity of his crime. Ready or not, here he comes back into society. Freddy Gale, on the other hand, has been on a permanent downturn in his life since his daughter died. There is no joy in life, only the endless dreary days at his jewelry store and the disreputable nights at his strip club hangout with his bitter, cynical divorced pals. His radical personality change led to his divorce from his wife, Mary (Anjelica Huston, as seen in The Addams Family, Prizzi's Honor, The Grifters.) Only the searing fire of revenge keeps him focused now as he waits to kill Booth upon his release.
When Freddy gets his chance, he fumbles the opportunity. To his surprise, Booth seems to welcome the prospect of death, disclaiming all intentions to call the police, making plain the guilt he carefully tended and nurtured while in prison. Freddy recovers enough to take Booth up on his implicit offer, and gives Booth three more days.
In the intervening time, both men try to come to grips with their situation. Freddy battles against himself, trying to psyche himself up to actually committing murder and overcome his persistent, whispering conscience. Booth experiences the little pleasures of freedom, including the feminine company of Jojo (Robin Wright, last seen in Message in a Bottle), a woman of independence and sympathy, but finds that his guilt will sabotage his future until he finds a solution. The two men are drawn inexorably to their destiny, but when it comes, the result is as surprising to Freddy and Booth as it is to the audience.
Video is about average for a non-anamorphic Buena Vista release. Colors are reasonably saturated, sharpness is fairly soft, and flesh tones are accurate. There is a fair sampling of dirt and defects spread through the movie, but only a whiff of digital enhancement artifacts. Blacks are decent, as is the shadow detail.
The audio track is suited to this character-driven film. Dialogue is clearly anchored in the center channel and smoothly panning sound effects (plus the moody score) complete the front soundstage. Rear surrounds provide limited but apparent support, filling in music and atmosphere (important for those club scenes) and the occasional rear to front sound effect. The subwoofer is used just for light bass support, but while it never made its presence known neither did it shut off for lack of a signal. The audio won't shake any paint loose, but it does a workmanlike job.
A couple of good character actors caught my eye and are worthy of a mention. Jeff Morris (Bob of Bob's Country Bunker in The Blues Brothers; The Two Jakes, Kelly's Heroes) shows up as one of Freddy's seedy bar-pals, and granite-faced Joe Viterelli (Analyze This) pops into the bar as well.
As I noted above, the acting talent on display in The Crossing Guard is ultimately superior to the story. I give credit to Sean Penn (writer, director and co-producer) for assembling a fine collection of actors for this personal project, and as a director giving them the room to wow the audience with their natural talents. However, the sudden ending was a huge puzzle and a disappointment in the way that it fails to articulate the rationale behind the surprise. The build-up is carefully orchestrated, but missing the critical detail about what Freddy and Booth were like in their natural (pre-homicide) days. I feel like I've been led up a steep mountain road only to find that it stops halfway down the other side.
Buena Vista seems to think that with rare exception (A Bug's Life CE and Shakespeare in Love SE) extra content means one extra item. Usually, it is a trailer, but here we get only a reasonable commentary track (with the multi-role Sean Penn, director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond, David Morse, and others). It is odd that we don't get even a lousy trailer, and no other content to speak of (except for the worthless Film Recommendations). Of course, we get one more annoyance (the Alpha keep case). Ick!
If you can appreciate strong, visceral acting and a riveting emotional story, then I recommend you enjoy a rental of The Crossing Guard. Consider a purchase carefully, given the high price ($30), limited extra content, and non-anamorphic transfer.
A swift whack of the gavel across Sean Penn's head for the story deficiencies, but the film is otherwise adjudged worthy. Buena Vista is yet again found to be in contempt of the court of public opinion for its indifferent approach to DVD, though I would consider withholding a stiff prison sentence if an anamorphic special edition of Pulp Fiction is released for all of us living in the US of A.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Cast and Crew Commentary