Robin Wright

Unbreakable (2000, M. Night Shyamalan)

If Unbreakable wasn’t a one hour and forty-six minute self-aggrandizement from wannabe mainstream-auteur (notice, not mainstream auteur) Shyamalan, it’d somehow be even worse. Because at least if Shyamalan is intentionally doing all these things, making all these choices, it’s a cohesive flop. If he’s not, if the mishmash elements are actually mishmash (like, you know, third-billed Robin Wright’s existence), if he really doesn’t think the sixth grade meets screenwriting manuals script is amazing, if there’s not a point to all those crane shots–usually shattering ceilings–then Unbreakable is even worse. And you don’t want it to be even worse because you gave it those 106 minutes, when you should’ve stopped at the opening text giving statistics on the comic book hobby and industry in the year 2000.

Or at least when the next scene of the movie is about a baby being born in a department store in 1961. The newborn has broken arms and legs. There’s almost the plot possibility the all-white store staff did something to the black mom (Charlayne Woodard) and baby. Attending physician Eamonn Walker certainly thinks something happened.

But then the action jumps ahead to the present, with Bruce Willis sitting on a train. He’s a quiet enough guy–totally bald–wearing a suit, but he does then proceed to take-off his wedding ring to flirt with the hottie who sits down next to him. Charmlessly flirt. In an exaggerated sad, creepy way so you know he’s harmless. And it’s not like he leaves the ring off after she bails.

Oh, before I forget. The greatest tragedy of the film is that time jump, because it’s the last time Walker’s in the movie and he gives the only decent performance. Wright’s performance isn’t her fault, but it’s still not good.

But instead you sat through the failed train pickup. Then things start getting exciting when Willis realizes the train’s going really, really fast. Then they stop getting exciting. And so ends the last building of dramatic tension in the film. And Shyamalan is going to make you suffer for sticking with it. No more rising tension. Ever. Not even when Shyamalan moves the camera around really fast to show you you’re supposed to be feeling the rising tension.

Instead it’s about one hour and forty minutes of humorless, joyless moping from everyone involved. I was going to say there’s nothing technically accomplished about the film–while Shyamalan’s hilariously pedestrian Panavision composition isn’t cinematographer Eduardo Serra’s fault, Serra had a duty to the human optical nerve not to do some of these things; similarly, editor Dylan Tichenor didn’t come up with the tone but he executed it. But production designer Larry Fulton does do a fine job creating, at least, Willis and Wright’s house, which is a miserable place you can’t imagine anyone ever said a kind word to one another much less had a holiday meal or birthday party. Wright doesn’t even get to exist in the house without Willis inviting her into the story.

Oh, right. Wright and Willis are breaking up because he’s too distant from her and son Spencer Treat Clark (who really ought to be the worst performance in the film but isn’t because Samuel L. Jackson; but in any fair universe, Clark would be the worst). Only we don’t find out why they’re breaking up for like an hour, until they’re getting back together.

Sorry, I’m forgetting. Willis’s train crashes and everyone dies except him and comic book art gallery dealer Samuel L. Jackson mysteriously contacts him with an unsigned note on his car. Has Willis ever been sick. He hasn’t ever been sick, something Willis finds really weird when he thinks about it so he goes to see Jackson. Jackson thinks Willis is a superhero. Only they never say superhero, they just say hero because Shyamalan is a serious important filmmaker and somehow saying superhero would make the whole thing silly.

Jackson is the baby from the first scene grown up. He has osteogenesis imperfecta; his bones are fragile. The kids who regularly assaulted him growing up called him “Mr. Glass.” He owns an art gallery with terrible drawings of superheroes. Not terrible like they’re fighting gross monsters, terrible like no one on the film had access to actual… drawings. Superhero or otherwise. It’s funny?

Anyway, Jackson tells Willis he’s a superhero because comic books are at least based somewhat in fact when describing superheroes. Jackson’s got this obnoxious history of comics monologue starting in Ancient Egypt, which is really, really, really dumb. Like silly dumb and inaccurate would make more sense if Shuster and Siegel created Superman after seeing a meteor fall. But there’s no Shuster or Siegel or the actual history of superhero comics because, well, Shyamlan’s script is really bad, but also because DC Comics had zero participation in the film. Despite Jackson’s favorite comics looking like DC Comics–what kid wouldn’t run to the corner in 1968 to get the latest Active Comics starring Slayer–in the logo designs, the comics themselves are exceptionally inept. Later on, in comic shops, Marvel Comics appear, which is funny since the final line in the movie is a freaking Superman reference.

Anyway.

Willis thinks Jackson is crazy but then Jackson stalks him at work and soon Willis is thinking maybe he is a superhero. He and estranged son Clark bond over his possible superpowers. It’s a little less affecting after Willis reveals he (Willis, the dad) blames his son for the estrangement, which isn’t really an estrangement so much as Willis is unhappy because he’s not out there being a superhero. Man needs his purpose.

Woman needs her purpose too and Wright’s purpose is to fall back in love with Willis. She fell out because… it’s never clear. The scenes would make more sense if Wright and Willis barely knew one another, not raised a tween together. Wright also has zero relationship with Clark, which is weird because Willis is supposed to be such a bad dad, but when Clark and Wright are in a scene together it’s like they haven’t even been introduced.

Shyamalan’s directorial badness isn’t just in the composition or pacing, whatever he told those actors to do during filming, they should have refused. Because it’s terrible.

No one’s worse than Jackson. Well, Clark, but on a technicality of sorts. Jackson’s got no character whatsoever. He exists for Willis. He’s intentionally unlikable (unless Shyamalan thinks the scene where Jackson hates kids makes him likable), every delivery is flat because he’s so serious, but then he occasionally makes good jokes. Charmlessly. Because no one’s allowed to have any charm in Unbreakable, which is fair. It’s a charm vacuum.

Willis’s performance is bad too. Though less funny because he has less to do than Jackson in a lot of ways, even though he’s the lead and finds out he might be Superman. Well, not Superman. He might be unbreakable and have some psychic powers. Or he just has impressions, which play out as flashback or flash forward scenes with crane shots, which aren’t impressions, but Shyamalan never gets into it too much because it’d be nerdy to define Willis’s power set. Unbreakable is serious stuff, after all.

And, hey, Willis does eventually get to do a hero arc. After ignoring a racist physical assault on a black woman and a white woman getting raped, he finds someone he does want to save. A white guy. Will Super Willis be able to take on the villain, who is stronger than Willis so hopefully Willis doesn’t have super strength, but whatever.

Lousy, lousy, lousy–and entirely inappropriate–epic-sized music from James Newton Howard.

Unbreakable is a dismal experience. But, hey, it’s not like there weren’t signs right away. And it just gets worse. And worse. And worse. And then it’s five minutes in and there are 101 more to go.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; director of photography, Eduardo Serra; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Larry Fulton; produced by Barry Mendel, Sam Mercer, and Shyamalan; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Bruce Willis (David Dunn), Samuel L. Jackson (Elijah Price), Spencer Treat Clark (Joseph Dunn), Robin Wright (Audrey Dunn), and Charlayne Woodard (Elijah’s Mother).


Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

Whatever its faults, Blade Runner 2049 is breathtaking. Director Villeneuve’s composition, Roger Deakins’s photography, Dennis Gassner’s production design, all the CGI–the film is constantly gorgeous. It’s got nothing beautiful to show–the world of 2049 is a wasteland, all plant life is dead, the endless L.A. skyline is (while awesome) nasty, San Diego is a huge, inhabited dump. I mean, Jared Leto is a biochem industrialist who saves the world; like that world is going to be nice.

2049 spends a lot of time showcasing the achievements of that exterior setting. Interiors are sparer. Villeneuve’s direction is always good (or better), but the interior scenes lack something visually. Joe Walker’s editing can usually cover for it. Most of the interiors have lead Ryan Gosling wishing he was a real boy instead of a pretend one. He’s even got a pretend girlfriend (Ana de Armas as a holographic companion) who wishes she was a real one.

For a while, 2049 seems like it might be about Gosling and de Armas. But it’s not. Because even though Gosling is a Blade Runner, he’s not the blade runner 2049 cares about. Once Harrison Ford shows up, even when the movie’s from Gosling’s perspective, it’s not Gosling’s movie anymore. Maybe if the film had some great part for Ford, it would matter. But it doesn’t. It gives him a few minutes to get established, in a completely different context than his previous turn in the role, and then it keeps him around. Walker’s editing doesn’t cover for Ford like it does Gosling. Gosling sits around despondent in his affectless. Ford looks surprisingly genial and well-adjusted for a person who’s supposedly lived in complete isolation for the last thirty years.

Bringing me to talking about 2049 as a sequel to the original. Because there’s really nothing to it otherwise. There are a handful of sequel setups in 2049, but the way screenwriters Hampton Fancher (returning from the first film) and Michael Green find a story from the first movie? They just retcon obtusely, trusting Villeneuve to be able to pull it off. And he does. He’s able to keep 2049’s narrative detached from the screenplay’s minutiae (for most of the film); Gosling helps, until the movie stops wanting him to help. de Armas helps. Robin Wright (as Gosling’s boss, in an underwritten, underutilized role) helps. Ford’s likable, which really isn’t enough (and might be completely inappropriate, actually). Villain Sylvia Hoeks doesn’t help. She’s shockingly underdeveloped. And Villeneuve’s direction of the genetically enhanced replicant fight scenes is wanting. He can do it when it’s inconsequential, but he’s not able to make the fights dangerous for the characters.

Possibly because of Gosling’s complete detachment in the third act of the film, which is when there’s all the “first movie” revelations (but not, rather events soon following the first movie revelations) and sequel setup. Gosling starts on a hero’s quest, then finds himself just an observer of one. The prologue to one. Villeneuve and company cover as best they can–making the narrative events as unimportant an aspect to the film as possible–but they can’t. Villeneuve can’t share the movie between Ford and Gosling, neither can the script. Everyone just throws up their hands.

Probably because Ford doesn’t need to be there. But if Ford doesn’t need to be there, maybe the direct ties to the first movie don’t need to be there; take those two things away and there’s nothing to 2049 except the gorgeous dystopia. Gosling and de Armas’s subplot, which the film ends up using mostly pragmatically, is red herring.

The music, from Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, is lacking. But maybe because the film uses it so sparing. 2049 is bold where it can excel–the visuals–and cowardly where it needs to create. The villains are exceptionally thin. Gosling loses his movie. Ford gets to retread a part made different to allow for a way too careful sequel.

It’s too bad, but–deep down–no one should’ve thought a Blade Runner sequel would work. Especially not with Ford forced back into it. It’s like they got the money for a sequel but no one with a real idea for one. Villeneuve’s direction is visually stunning, his direction of actors is usually strong, but he’s got no handle on the story. 2049 is about avoidance.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to avoid a future where Jared Leto saved humanity.

CREDITS

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, based on a story by Fancher, and characters created by Philip K. Dick, Fancher, and David Webb Peoples; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Joe Walker; music by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer; production designer, Dennis Gassner; produced by Bud Yorkin, Broderick Johnson, Cynthia Sikes, and Andrew A. Kosgrove; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ryan Gosling (K), Harrison Ford (Rick Deckard), Jared Leto (Niander Wallace), Ana de Armas (Joi), Sylvia Hoeks (Luv), Robin Wright (Madame), Dave Bautista (Sapper Morton), Mackenzie Davis (Mariette), and Carla Juri (Dr. Ana Stelline).


Wonder Woman (2017, Patty Jenkins)

Wonder Woman has one set of official, awkward bookends and one set of unofficial ones. The former does lead Gal Gadot no favors–after spending a moving building a character, it goes all tabula rosa and turns Gadot into little more than a licensing image. The latter does the film no favors. The latter is lousy CG composites. Wonder Woman is full of them, but none of them are worse than the first one and the last one. They jarringly destroy any verisimilitude director Jenkins and Gadot (in the case of the closing bookend) have been working towards. At least in the prologue–which comes after the first bookend (Allan Heinberg’s script is never plotted well)–there’s the rest of the film. But to close on being yanked out of the picture? It’s the final kick in Wonder Woman’s shins.

After the silly opening frame, bad composite or not, Wonder Woman gets off to a strong start. Connie Nielsen is queen of the Amazons, Robin Wright is general of the Amazons. Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey play the younger versions of Gadot but they’re not the point. Nielsen and Wright are the point. Nielsen’s solid, Wright’s awesome. The costumes are a little questionable, as they’re on an island paradise and Nielsen’s in furs? But it’s good.

Then it’s time for Gadot to take over the role and for Chris Pine to literally fall into her lap. Everything starts moving rather quickly–Pine’s arrival, a battle scene with the Amazons versus German soldiers, Gadot and Nielsen bickering, Gadot heading into the world of man. She can never return to her family, but it’s okay because she’s got a mission. It’s World War I and she’s got to save the world, based on bedtime stories Nielsen told Aspell. Turns out they’re the Amazon equivalents of Santa Claus, which should break some of the film’s logic but no one seems to care.

It’s unfortunate Gadot and Nielsen–and Gadot and Wright–never really get scenes together. It’s always plot perturbing scenes, nothing to build the relationships. Again, Heinburg’s script is never plotted well. Ever.

Anyway, Gadot and Pine have immediate chemistry and for a while Wonder Woman is able to coast. Sure, the CGI London is small and weak, but World War I is a great setting for human sadness. The film oscillates between introducing Gadot and Pine’s ragtag team of personable sidekicks–Lucy Davis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, David Thewlis–and showing Gadot all the horrors people inflict on other people. Ostensibly it should add to some character development for Gadot, but Heinburg and Jenkins don’t ever let it go towards character development.

I mean, they’re going to wipe the slate clean in the end, so why bother.

Tossed into this mix is Danny Huston and Elena Anaya as a German general and his pet scientist, respectively, who are trying to make a mustard gas variant to get through gas masks and kill everyone. And Gadot and Pine only have forty-eight hours to stop them.

Eventually, they get to the Front–where the film introduces Eugene Brave Rock as the last throwaway sidekick, an American Indian who’s a black market profiteer selling to both sides, even though the Germans are really, really, really, really bad guys in Wonder Woman. There Gadot gets to show off her superpowers for the first time, though only in one sequence–albeit an pretty awesome one, save the weak CG composites of course–before the film starts its downhill run into the third act.

Most of the action–including Gadot and Pine sailing from “Paradise Island” to England–takes place in four or five days. And the big battle finale, with its numerous revelations and plot twists, takes up maybe a quarter of the film. Then it’s time for the closing bookend, which echoes one of the weakest revelation sequences from the finale, and the movie’s over.

Gadot’s good, regardless of the film eschewing the idea she’s supposed to be developing a character. Pine’s good. Davis, Taghmaoui, Bremner, Thewlis, and Brave Rock are good. Everyone’s good. The acting isn’t an issue, it’s the writing and the pacing. And the film’s reliance on some shallow, manipulative (and not even good manipulative) radio show positive message philosophy to wrap things up nice and tidy. Except Wonder Woman is supposed to be, at least on some level, a war movie–seeing sweet little Aspell get wide-eyed and excited at the prospective of war is something else–and the tidy finish rings false.

Better special effects would’ve helped. Not setting the last battle sequence entirely at night and in confined spaces would’ve helped too. A lot of things–like a better screenwriter than Heinburg, a better cinematographer than Matthew “shooting through pea soup” Jensen, a better score than Rupert Gregson-Williams can deliver–would’ve helped. Jenkins does fine with what she’s got. And editor Martin Walsh is all right.

The Wonder Woman action guitar riff (which isn’t even original to this film) is dumb.

The film ends up completely wasting Huston and Anaya. Anaya, actually, twice gets to be a metaphor for the script’s utter lack of integrity.

Still, it could be much worse. The bookends are almost threats to how much worse it could’ve been. But it’s a complete disservice to Gadot, who more than proves herself a capable lead.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Patty Jenkins; screenplay by Allan Heinberg, based on a story by Zack Snyder, Heinberg, and Jason Fuchs, and characters created by William Moulton Marston; director of photography, Matthew Jensen; edited by Martin Walsh; music by Rupert Gregson-Williams; production designer, Aline Bonetto; produced by Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder, and Richard Suckle; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Gal Gadot (Princess Diana of Themyscira), Chris Pine (Steve Trevor), Danny Huston (General Ludendorff), Elena Anaya (Dr. Isabel Maru), Connie Nielsen (Queen Hippolyta), Robin Wright (General Antiope), Lucy Davis (Etta Candy), Saïd Taghmaoui (Sameer), Ewen Bremner (Charlie), Eugene Brave Rock (The Chief), and David Thewlis (Sir Patrick Morgan).


Moneyball (2011, Bennett Miller)

Moneyball is the traditional American sports movie with all the excitement sucked out of the accomplishment. The excitement isn’t gone because of the story–about how the Oakland A’s applied a statistical theory to how to win baseball games, but more because director Miller wants to make sure everyone is paying attention to the symbolism in his filmmaking.

Miller’s style is generic, competent important mainstream filmmaking. He has a minimalist Mychael Danna, he has a big movie star (Brad Pitt) playing a guy who didn’t make it, he has a cast-against-type sidekick for Pitt (Jonah Hill), he’s even got Robin Wright as Pitt’s ex-wife. I didn’t realize she was in the cast, but when her single scene came on, I knew it was her before she got a close-up. Why? Because Moneyball is that type of movie.

And the first hour, maybe hour and a half, moves beautifully. Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay makes everything–all the baseball business, all the statistics–nicely digestible. It’s a very smooth film for that first ninety minutes, with some great editing from Christopher Tellefsen.

But then Miller realizes he’s making an American sports movie and so he has to do his variation on the big game moment. But because Moneyball isn’t “just” a sports movie, everything goes on and on and on after that moment. It meanders when it needs to come together and the ending is way too obvious.

Still, it’s perfectly acceptable mainstream “thinking” movie stuff.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bennett Miller; written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, based on a story by Stan Chervin and the book by Michael Lewis; director of photography, Wally Pfister; edited by Christopher Tellefsen; music by Mychael Danna; production designer, Jess Gonchor; produced by Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz and Brad Pitt; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Brad Pitt (Billy Beane), Jonah Hill (Peter Brand), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Art Howe), Robin Wright (Sharon), Chris Pratt (Scott Hatteberg) and Stephen Bishop (David Justice).


State of Play (2009, Kevin Macdonald)

Who has the least personality when it comes to State of Play? Director Kevin Macdonald? He shoots the most boring Panavision-sized frame I think I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a Brett Ratner movie from start to finish, but… Macdonald’s boring. He’s not bad, he’s just not any good at all. The lack of a distinctive screenwriter is also a problem–Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray are all hacks. I mean, they’re–at times–fine hacks, but none of them is a distinctive screenwriter. They’re the kind of guys Carrie Fisher comes in to fix up and, watching State of Play, one can’t help but think she rewrote the scenes between Russell Crowe and Robin Wright.

But it’s not just the behind-the-camera talent… no one in front of the camera has any personality either. I mean, Helen Mirren does because she occasionally swears with her British accent. It’s The Queen swearing; laugh. And the audience does laugh, because it’s why she’s swearing. For comic relief. State of Play is a newspaper drama in the post-newspaper age, which means lots of derogatory blog comments. But, you know what? It doesn’t provide a useful defense of printed media. There’s nothing, after all the film’s emphasis on Crowe as the traditional reporter and sidekick Rachel McAdams as the blogger, to show McAdams’s blog couldn’t have done all the narrative’s whistle-blowing.

McAdams and Crowe are both fine. Really, they’re fine. I mean, they have all the personality of a “Tonight Show” guest and it’s like the film’s producers didn’t understand Crowe is an actor, not a screen presence, so casting him in a lousy role, one needing a presence, was a bad idea. McAdams is the same situation. She has no character and no personality. For the majority of the film, State of Play relies on Mirren for relief. Sometimes, it’s Wright. She’s been doing these crappy wife roles for ten years, so it’s no surprise she doesn’t break a sweat doing another one, even one where she’s supposedly married to Ben Affleck.

Ben Affleck is, at the time of this film’s release, thirty-seven years old. Russell Crowe is forty-five. Robin Wright is forty-three. Crowe and Wright look fine together. State of Play puts Affleck in a bunch of aging make-up. He looks silly. It’s unbelievable he, Crowe and Wright went to college together. It’s unbelievable he and Crowe ever knew each other before the film’s present action. Affleck and Wright are both solid enough to make their marriage, however silly-looking thanks to Affleck’s make-up, work.

Affleck gives the film’s second best performance, after Mirren. Then, I guess, Wright. Then everyone else. They really don’t matter. Andy Garcia would have been far superior in the Crowe role. Anyone with some kind of non-character-based screen presence. Russell Crowe’s an actor, not a matinee star. State of Play needed a matinee star.

Originally, it was going to be Brad Pitt in the Crowe role and Edward Norton in the Affleck role. With them, the film would have at least made sense. It wouldn’t have been good unless Macdonald was gone and the script got a rewrite from a real writer.

Wait, I forgot about Jason Bateman. He gave the film’s best performance. He was fantastic.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Kevin Macdonald; written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray, based on the television series by Paul Abbott; director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto; edited by Justine Wright; music by Alex Heffes; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Andrew Hauptman, Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Russell Crowe (Cal McAffrey), Ben Affleck (Stephen Collins), Rachel McAdams (Della Frye), Helen Mirren (Cameron Lynne), Robin Wright (Anne Collins), Jason Bateman (Dominic Foy), Jeff Daniels (Rep. George Fergus), Michael Berresse (Robert Bingham), Harry Lennix (Det. Donald Bell), Josh Mostel (Pete), Michael Weston (Hank), Barry Shabaka Henley (Gene Stavitz) and Viola Davis (Dr. Judith Franklin).


The Crossing Guard (1995, Sean Penn)

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.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced and directed by Sean Penn; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Jay Cassidy; music by Jack Nitzsche; production designer, Michael D. Haller; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Jack Nicholson (Freddy Gale), David Morse (John Booth), Anjelica Huston (Mary), Robin Wright (Jojo), Piper Laurie (Helen Booth), Richard Bradford (Stuart Booth), Priscilla Barnes (Verna), David Baerwald (Peter), Robbie Robertson (Roger), John Savage (Bobby) and Kari Wuhrer (Mia).


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