(for a full summary of the film, scroll down to "What Happens?)
"The Crossing Guard" is a film about great loss, and the way our personal problems color our ideas, about who we are, and about redemption. The centerpiece of the film is a terrible tragedy, a little girl killed, affecting everyone in this story.We see its effects most visibly via Freddy Gale. We only meet Freddy on the day that John Booth, the drunk driver who killed his daughter Emily, is released. It's clear that this is a day he's waited a long time for.
While it's common for people to say "If anyone ever did something to my family, I'd kill them myself" it's not so common for people to actually do so, but Freddy isn't most people, and this is something he takes very seriously, although he isn't quite sure why. As Booth tells us "he's a serious man." Certainly there's the straightforward appeal of retribution, but Freddy isn't planning to commit the act for it's own sake. We can understand a grieving father not making distinctions between murder and an accident. His daughter isn't here anymore and someone caused this. He hasn't made it past that part of the reasoning, although he's years to do so. It's interesting that in this film the character is a drunk driver, the offense right on the line of responsibility. He didn't mean to murder anyone, but he should certainly have known that drunk driving is reckless and makes many such possibilities possible. If he hadn't been drunk, would it have happened the same way? We don't know, but his drunken state makes it impossible to see him as blameless. You could call it murder and if you loved the victim you most certainly would. He chose to drink too much, and afterwards, he ran. Freddy isn't without good reason for his anger.
Freddy feels he has to tell his ex-wife, Mary. He assures her that when she sees it's happened, she'll feel "Pride and relief." She assures him that despite what he thinks, he isn't doing anything for her sake. Freddy's never even been to Emily's grave, although he won't admit it. Mary equates this with a lack of courage and she may be right. Visiting Emily's grave would make it difficult for Freddy to maintain the fog he lives in.
We come to understand that in the time since Emily's death, Freddy has come completely apart. As he tells John Booth on his first visit, "being a jeweler" is all he's got. We see that the other things "he has" are a lot of drinking, and his associates at his favorite strip club. He sleeps with the girls there, trying to avoid any attachment, but can't even leave it at that. He has to get up in the middle of the night and look for prostitutes. He tells his strip club friends, he hears a sound building in his head, "like a vacuum cleaner." and we get that Freddy just has no idea what to do with himself. He imagines killing John Booth as the solution to everything, but we see that his problems are a lot bigger than that. He has no friends, just the guys that laugh and look at women with him. He has no romantic relationships, ruining even the most casual arrangements. After years, he still calls his ex wife when he sees a happy family meeting in the street. Freddy wants to be the guy he was once, but that guy is gone. As Mary tells him "It's made you so small and weak. I needed you to be big and strong." Clearly she strikes a chord with him, and when she reveals that she pities him, he tells her "I hope you die." The person that he wants is big and strong, and a guy to be proud of. He knows as well as she does that he hasn't been that guy for a long time. Killing Booth is the grand gesture in his mind that will make him that again.
Freddy has the will to do it. He pulls the trigger without hesitation when he first sees John. Of course it can't be as easy as the thought. His gun won't work. John gives him no trouble, practically volunteering himself, asking only for a couple days. Booth is as much of a mess as Freddy is. Neither is sure if they want to lie or die. We see Freddy, when Booth has a gun on him, practically telling Booth to shoot him, announcing he's going to pull his gun. As complications come up, the simplicity of Freddy's idea, kill Booth and be big again" gets complicated, as if he's being urged to question it. The second time he meets John, he's also a drunk driver and someone who endangered another family's little girl by hiding in her room to evade police. These things happen to Freddy, but he doesn't see them. His quest was never based on any logic anyway. Freddy is trying to put a fairy tale back together after everything in the story is gone. He hasn't accepted the fact that he's not with his family anymore, although they have moved on.
It's common for the death of a child to destroy a marriage, and in this marriage we have two very different methods of dealing with the loss. We see Mary attending support groups and visiting Emily's grave with her other kids. She remarries and tries to keep herself together. Freddy on the other hand, does everything he can to ensure that his life doesn't improve, and drinks enough to ensure it. He tells Booth that all he has is "being a jeweler" but he doesn't even apply himself to that, letting his employee run the business while he stays up in his office and drinks. The only thing he sees clearly is that he must kill Booth, everything else is just passing time. His quest is bigger to him than any consequences, as we see when he grabs his gun and runs from the police, knowing that once he's arrested, he won't have a chance anymore. He may assume for a moment that he's succeeded, when he shoots Booth and he doesn't move for a moment, but it doesn't give him any comfort. When he sees John get up, he raises his hands to assure him he won't shoot. Still, he has to follow him and the revelation that booth knows the way to his daughter's grave when he, her father, has never been there, is too much for him to take. He already knows the similarities between him and Booth, as he reveals telling Mary his dream, where Booth is the crossing guard and he is the driver. They're not very different at all, the Booth that killed his daughter, and the Freddy that exists now. It isn't entirely Booth's fault that Freddy let his life fall apart, although he certainly caused some great pain. Freddy's response to loss was to destroy himself, which is his prerogative I suppose, but killing someone else would change nothing for the better. Like Mary, Freddy must arrive at the place where he realizes that people die, very often the wrong people, very easily and all he really has, is how he deals with that and lives his life.
This role is Nicholson at his best, without many of the trademarks he's known for. He's not the sarcastic guy raising famous eyebrows. Freddy Gale is way past that. We meet him just before he hits the bottom he's been circling around. Nicholson gives us a compelling picture of a man always just a step away from breakdown, suspending himself there, with booze and anger. As uncomfortable as it is to watch, we can imagine how uncomfortable it is to be this person. Angelica Huston is just as believable, seeing her and Nicholson together, we can believe they have a shared history. Mary gives us another side of the story. She still keeps her grief, but chooses to live on, as she knows that nothing will fix the situation. She tells us how angry she was and how much she hated Freddy, and glimpses of that come through, but the difference is she works hard not to live there perpetually.
David Morse is fantastic here in a very difficult role. John Booth can never be a sympathetic character, as we know what he did. But, he's not a character who denies what he did either. Prison seems to be a minor thing for him, his most difficult punishment is that he must live with himself. Certainly no amount of time served can make him right. He doesn't argue with Freddy's verdict, even when it's clear that Freddy's gun won't work and he could gain the upper hand in a confrontation. He tells him to come back in a couple days. Jojo tells him she can't compete with John's guilt, and of course she's right, and that's as it should be. It's nice to think of someone living with this weight, rather than trying to deny it. She tells him to come see her when he's ready for life, and that's the biggest connection between him and Freddy, neither of them are ready for life anymore. Also like Freddy, Booth isn't the same guy he was those years ago, both of them have lived every day with Booth's crime and the impossible task of finding peace with the irreconcilable. "It was an accident" Jojo points out, but it isn't so simple. Booth saw the girl he killed, apologizing for not looking both ways before crossing. He wants to die, and it's hard to argue with him or Freddie. But, he's still alive and as a result, he can't help the urge to stay that way. The solid support of his parents likely hurts him as much as helps, as he knows he doesn't deserve people that love him so much after what he's done. On their second visit, his urge to live surfaces, he turns the tables on Freddy, but ultimately, his guilt wins out. He can't stay Freddy's hand, he knows that between the two of them, Freddy has the right.
In the end, it's fitting that John leads Freddy to Emily's grave. "It's pink" he says, as if a revelation. Freddy takes his hand while sobbing, and it doesn't absolve Booth, as much as admit, that while this death can't be fixed, they're alive and they have to go on, at least if they want to live. "Here comes your Daddy. He needs your help." Booth tells Emily's grave, and he's right. The problem of killing Booth is not the only one. Freddy has never been to the grave, he hasn't mourned his daughter, but transferred his grief into the way he lives his life. They share a moment, and nobody says "It's ok." because it's not and never can be, but Freddy has seen how close he's come to what Booth was, a reckless drunk driver, and once he puts aside the task of killing Booth, the piece of Emily he was hanging onto, he realizes he needs to mourn and he wants to live.While there are certainly some difficulties ahead for the both of them, it's a fitting place to leave them, with a little more understanding than they started with. Freddy will never be the guy he used to be, and neither will Booth, and Emily is still gone. That's where they have to start over from.
Written and directed by Sean Penn, the Crossing Guard isn't a perfect film, but it is a powerful one. Penn seems unconcerned with logic at times, as he's more concerned with getting to the emotion he wants to explore. Watching the film in that light, you can enjoy some deep and talented performances. While it may be tough to accept that Freddy's gun wouldn't fire, or that the police wouldn't shoot Freddy the second he grabbed his gun during a traffic stop, then everything works fine. He's clearly looking for emotional logic more than anything else, and he delivers it, not giving us an easy answer to these questions, or even a solution, as much as a long way travelled to achieve a little progress. In light of what happened, that's a reasonable request, and even that little progress is something to see. Emily's gone, and they're still here. It'll always hurt and will never be fair, but that's the only place to pick up from.
The film opens with Mary (Anjelica Huston) sitting in a support group while her ex husband Freddy Gale (Jack Nicholson) is at a strip club. Mary listens to other women tell stories about how they lost loved ones. We see that Freddy is a regular and knows a number of men at the club. Scenes cut back and forth until we cut back to Freddy and the screen tells us "The Father." and then back to Mary, "The Mother" We see her crying at a man's story about missing the self he used to be before his brother died.