AMC Network Entertainment LLC

This browser is supported only in Windows 10 and above.

Morality, Complicated: A Sean Penn Retrospective

Sean Penn one of Hollywood’s bad boys. At least that’s what they say. He has punched out photographers and doesn’t bother to defend his difficulties with authority or reporters. He is an acclaimed actor who takes eclectic roles, from death row candidate Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking to bawdy guitar maestro Emmet Ray in Sweet and Lowdown (Oscar-nominated for Best Actor for both roles). So how does this aloof yet intelligent presence translate when placed behind the camera?

Penn has directed three films to date. Though each story has been penned by someone diffrent (Penn wrote The Crossing Guard himself) and is unique in terms of plot and characters, it doesn’t take a genius to find Penn’s fingerprints on each.

The Indian Runner, his directorial debut in 1991, is the story of a responsible brother (David Morse, The Green Mile) attempting to help out his sibling (Viggo Mortensen, A Walk on the Moon), who has just returned from the Vietnam War and is now his polar opposite. The Crossing Guard (1995) questions the idea of revenge from the universal standpoint of a father (Jack Nicholson) obsessed with killing the recently released criminal (Morse, again) who ran over his daughter in a drunk driving accident. The Pledge (2001), Penn’s latest, depicts another moral struggle in a man (Nicholson) who has made a promise to catch the murderer of an 8-year-old girl.

Despite Penn’s renowned aggression with the public and media, the characters he chooses to work with are surprisingly sensitive, three-dimensional, and wholly sympathetic. This isn’t to say that they aren’t flawed, but their weaknesses are understandable given the situations they are in, and viewers struggle along with them as they make tough choices.

The key to each of these films revolves around moral complexity. In The Indian Runner, Joe Roberts should be putting his brother behind bars for his antics, but the family bond and their close relationship growing up can’t push him towards betrayal. Any father would feel for The Crossing Guard‘s Freddie Gale, as a prison sentence isn’t enough to pay for his daughter’s life. But John Booth feels just as horrible for taking that life, and has enough difficulties reinventing his own that it begs the question if revenge is an answer. You want Jerry Black to catch the serial killer who prays on sweet children in The Pledge, but his method of using another little girl to do so just doesn’t seem right.

Penn’s humanistic style goes beyond the storyline. Being an actor, he allows his cast to fill out roles completely. Their characters are rarely easy stereotypes, or so predictable that you can see the end before it comes. The stories take their time in unraveling, allowing the plot to naturally evolve instead of forcing a breezy Hollywood ending. Some may find the crawling pace frustrating to wait through, but when the ending arrives a new point of view is reached in situations that traditionally assume extreme answers.

The effectiveness comes not only from the characters and their situations, but also the environment in which they take place. Whether the location is a small town or a major city, Penn works with his cinematographer to assure that they are captured as realistically as possible. The rustic nature of The Indian Runner parallels the grittiness of The Crossing Guard, adding more emotional weight to the premise. Even though there is a touch of mysticism to The Pledge, it is generated from the minds of the rural community, becoming part of the journey as a whole.

Actors who normally work for a large paycheck will take a cut, or defer payment to work with Penn. These performances end up as some of the best they have ever portrayed. Nicholson’s roles in The Crossing Guard and The Pledge demand more artistic reach as an actor than his turn in As Good As It Gets, even though he won the Oscar for it. And though some may find it merely nepotism that Robin Wright Penn is in his latter two movies, her roles are far from easy to neglect. She shines in both supporting roles. After watching them it is difficult to see anyone else filling her shoes. It’s too bad that Hollywood is full of more ‘marketable’ women in her age bracket.

Penn threatens to quit the industry all the time, but according to interviews with good pal Jack Nicholson, this will never happen. Penn takes his time when choosing a piece to direct; each of his films has been shot at least four years apart. He doesn’t direct for vanity or acclaim and this lends yet more respect to his directorial projects. While a mainstream audience may not appreciate his cinema, those who lean toward thought-provoking movies will not be disappointed. After watching all three films, one can only hope there is more to look forward to.

Penn on premiere night.

Read More