Pennitence

Sean Penn's The Crossing Guard is an examination of how different people cope with devastating grief. Jack Nicholson is a jeweler whose young daughter was run over and killed by a drunken driver, David Morse. The story starts five years after the tragedy, with Morse being released from prison and Nicholson planning to kill him in vengeance.

This is Penn's second outing as a feature writer/director (his first was The Indian Runner), and he seems to want to show how Nicholson's righteous rage has rotted his soul, while Morse, though still carrying guilt and remorse over the horror he caused, has come to a sort of peace with it.

Nicholson bungles his first attempt on Morse's life, and Morse is calm in the face of the threat--he doesn't desire the fate that Nicholson has in mind for him, but he won't flee it, either. Nicholson, baffled by this, says he'll return in three days to finish the job, and the two men spend those three days doing some heavy soul-searching.

There are involving passages in The Crossing Guard. Morse, a good actor who can't seem to find his niche, brings an eerie reserve and mysterious quiet to his role, while Nicholson's big scene, breaking down while talking on the phone, shows that he can still go for the emotional throat. Along with the no-nonsense Anjelica Huston, the terrific supporting cast includes Robin Wright, Priscilla Barnes, Piper Laurie, Richard Bradford and Robbie Robertson, plus one striking scene by the too-long-absent John Savage.

But too much of The Crossing Guard's dialogue smells like junior-year play-writing class. Or, perhaps, like therapy--a friend of mine remarked that the film was like "Sean Penn giving himself a mental enema."

There's a prurient side to the picture as well: Much of it takes place in a strip club where Nicholson hangs out and plays sugar daddy to the dancers. The justification for this setting would no doubt be that we're supposed to see that Nicholson is using meaningless sex to numb himself to real emotion. But it plays more like Penn wanted to spend a lot of time in a strip club.

Macbeth: Directed by Orson Welles; with Orson Welles, Jeanette Nolan, Dan O'Herlihy, Roddy McDowall, Alan Napier, Edgar Barrier, Robert Coote, John Dierkes, Erskine Sanford, Peggy Webber and Lurene Tuttle. Unrated.

That venerable cultural resource, American Movie Classics, has been hitting the big screen in recent weeks--the channel has been sponsoring a series of such important American films as High Noon, All About Eve and Rear Window on Wednesdays at United Artists Christown Cinema.

This week's selection is the 1948 version of Shakespeare's Macbeth, directed by and starring Orson Welles. The film was made on a shoestring at Republic Studios, with many of the same actors and technicians who peopled Republic's Westerns and cliffhangers. In a nice Shakespearean touch, Lurene Tuttle doubled in the roles of the Gentlewoman and the Second Witch.

This was one of the few times in his career that Welles was able to work in comparative freedom, backed by the resources of a good, efficient Hollywood studio. The result is one of his most starkly beautiful and technically assured films.

The performances are variable, and one might quibble with Welles' interpretation of some of the text, or with his decision to speak with a Scottish accent. But there is certainly no disputing the power and magnificence of the film on a visual level. If you've never seen it on a movie screen, it's worth catching, even if it is more appropriate to Halloween than to our current season.

Nick of Time: Directed by John Badham; with Johnny Depp, Christopher Walken, Marsha Mason, Charles S. Dutton, Roma Maffia, Gloria Reuben, Courtney Chase, Peter Strauss and G.D.Spradlin. Rated R.

The 90-odd minutes of Nick of Time's length are the 90-odd minutes of the story length: It starts at noon and ends a little after 1:30. In that time, Gene (Johnny Depp), a nice young CPA, arrives with his daughter at the train station in Los Angeles. Two unsavory characters (Christopher Walken and sidekick Roma Maffia) kidnap the daughter, thus coercing Gene into helping them with an assassination plot. If Gene doesn't shoot and kill California's guv before 1:30, Maffia will kill his child.

It's hard to imagine a more imprudent way to plot an assassination than to hand a gun to a stranger and blackmail him into it. This absurdity is what keeps Nick of Time from really taking hold as a thriller.

"Real time" has been used in other films, most famously in High Noon and Hitchcock's Rope. But in the latter, it seems mainly to have been intended as a technical experiment, as the suspense in that film didn't involve any particular deadline. If memory serves, Lewis Allen's crafty 1954 thriller Suddenly, also about an assassination attempt, was in real time. Generally, though, the idea has proved more gimmick than artful technique.

Nick of Time's veteran director, John Badham, makes it a self-conscious gimmick, beginning with the titles, which are superimposed over ticking clockworks. What makes this no-brainer fairly tolerable are the performances. Depp is sympathetic at once as the sweating Everyman hero. Walken is amusing as the strutting baddie who clearly impresses himself far more than he does either his victims or his employers. Marsha Mason is rather charmingly addled as the guv, who begs off making a speech in one scene because, she says, she has "siesta hair."

I have only one question: Instead of Gene,why wasn't Depp's character named Nick?--M. V. Moorhead

The Crossing Guard:
Directed by Sean Penn; with Jack Nicholson, David Morse, Robin Wright, Piper Laurie and John Savage. Rated

 
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