Crossing Guard, The: Sean Penn’s Second Directorial Effort, Starring Jack Nicholson

The sorrowful account of the aftermath of a tragedy, Sean Penn’s second directorial effort, The Crossing Guard, is a pretentious movie whose improvised structure displays powerful emotions but is dramatically shapeless, and pretentious too.

Artful crosscutting introduces three people as they deal, six years after the fact, with the death of a small girl in a car accident. A chronicle of an obsessive father (Jack Nicholson), who won’t give up until he confronts the drunk driver (David Morse) who killed his daughter, the film is overbearing and occasionally too painful to watch.

Structured as a journey of reconcilement–the father with grief, the killer with guilt–the material escapes Penn’s grasp as a director.

End result is an emotionally intense but dramatically flat film that’s sporadically punctuated by moments of raw emotionalism and bravura acting by Nicholson and Anjelica Huston (playing his ex-wife).

This is the second teaming of Nicholson and Huston after their first, more successful collaboration in her father’s (John Huston) next-to-last picture, “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985).

Penn’s 1991 feature directorial debut, “The Indian Runner,” a drama of two brothers, was also well acted by Viggo Mortensen and David Morse, but was at best an honorable failure.

In his second outing, Penn shows technical improvement as a helmer, but there’s still a gap between his work’s level of ambition and its level of execution.