Following his assured directorial debut with 1991's "The Indian Runner", Sean Penn faced a challenge with this intense drama, dealing as it does with notions of crime and punishment, revenge and closure. Armed with his high-calibre cast, he delivers an ambitious, if gruelling, film whose arduous pace is saved by excellent performances.
Nicholson plays Freddy, a bereaved father whose life has spiralled in to despair since his daughter was killed in a hit-and-run drink driving accident. Six years on, David Morse's guilt-ridden culprit, John Booth, is released from prison only to be faced by vengeful Freddy, who intends to execute him. A failed first attempt leads to a three-day grace period in which both men contemplate their lives and futures.
While Penn doesn't fully realise his themes, he is undoubtedly an actor's director, coaxing magnificent performances from his cast, particularly Nicholson. A tremendously committed portrayal of self-torture and unrelenting pain, his scenes with his ex-wife (Anjelica Huston) are particularly eerie and powerful and a high point of the film. As the repentant killer, Morse plays a sympathetic yet no less tortured counterbalance to Nicholson.
While Penn concocts some superb character moments, especially in the suggestion that Freddy's motivation might be more to impress his wife than see justice served, the film's attention-demanding subject matter is buried beneath Penn's understandable inclination towards performance.
Not as suspenseful as it might have been, Penn nonetheless creates an occasionally gripping look at the burdens of self-inflicted pain.