I can’t decide what moment of The Crossing Guard is my favorite. I have it narrowed down to two. It’s either the (louder) one at the end, where Jack Nicholson realizes where he is and how he got there, or it’s when I realized Anjelica Huston–who starts the film in a support group–has never spoken in her support group. She just goes and sits and wants to speak and never does. The Crossing Guard opens, after that scene with Huston and the juxtaposed Nicholson scene (Huston goes to support groups, Nicholson hangs out at a strip club), with this beautiful, victorious Jack Nitzsche music. It sounds like it’s a sports movie about a guy who never thought he’d play again, but then did. Nitzsche repeats this piece of music throughout the film and, each time it plays, it gets a little less victorious, a little less triumphant, until the end, when it’s about defeat.
The Crossing Guard is about compassion and submission. Penn doesn’t exactly hide these themes, but there isn’t a single scene where he lets the film get aware of itself enough to think about its themes. The Crossing Guard features a scene where Nicholson wakes up from a nightmare and calls ex-wife Huston on the phone to tell her the dream and it’s one of the best scenes in the film. This scene shouldn’t work, because relating a dream… it shouldn’t work. Penn breaks a couple major narrative rules in The Crossing Guard to great success. There isn’t a false moment in the film and only one where he holds a shot too long (but it’s featuring Robin Wright Penn and he basically casts her as an angel in the film, so he gets some leeway).
The most difficult task for the film’s viewer is connecting with the characters. It isn’t hard to connect with David Morse, whose puppy-dog eyes (which Wright Penn even comments on) and sweet, quiet demeanor visually collide with his hulking figure. His remorse and guilt are palpable. The scene where he tries to explain himself to parents Richard Bradford and Piper Laurie (who are both wonderful and share a fantastic small scene near the beginning) is devastating. It’s a hard moment in the film, where it becomes easier to objectify the film itself–Penn keeps the trailer where Nicholson threatened Morse’s life visible through the window behind Morse–than to listen to what Morse is saying. There isn’t a single explanation in The Crossing Guard. Penn demands his viewer interpret each moment and, if he or she doesn’t get it right, there’s no make-up exam… the film just moves forward.
Nicholson, for instance, is playing a tragic golem. He moves through his life fueled by alcohol, cigarettes and hatred. There are occasional peeks into the person he was before, but it’s all implied. The scenes with ex-wife Huston don’t even offer the most insight, instead it’s how the strippers flock to Nicholson. In this beautiful performance, which gives Nicholson two amazing–once in a career for most people–scenes, the most impressive thing he does is show an exceptional capacity for love. He never shows love for the strippers–Kari Wuhrer and Priscilla Barnes–but they sense it. Barnes has a great scene where she’s yelling at him, but it’s clear even when she’s angry with him. The scene where it’s clear Nicholson’s loved by the junkies, the masochists, the hookers and those who have squandered everything is another candidate for best moment in the film.
And when Nicholson’s humanity returns to him, when the automated processes start to slow, when the clay starts to crack–when it becomes clear just what Nicholson and Morse are both looking for… The Crossing Guard overwhelms.
And Penn isn’t even finished yet.
Penn’s direction–it’s very quiet at times, lots of discreet camera movement–Vilmos Zsigmond does a beautiful job–is sublime. It’s assured and measured. Just like the script’s implications, Penn’s visual moves are perfect. He even plays with the viewer’s perception of movie star Jack Nicholson as such as lackluster person. I kept wondering, as I watched it, if it was going to get better (which, given how great it is from the start, seems impossible). It does.