A boy’s snow-ski grinds to a halt on the mountainside. As he tries to get it going again, he sees an Indian running away from a nearby stand of trees. Going to investigate he discovers the bloodied body of a small blond girl (Ginny). News breaks of this discovery at Jerry Black’s retirement party – he’s retiring from the homicide squad to spend his leisure time fishing. The detective insists on taking the call, and ends up having to tell the child’s parents of their loss. Black promises the child’s mother that he will find Ginny’s killer.
Back at the station, a mentally impaired Indian has been coerced into confessing to the crime by Black’s colleague Stan. Black isn’t happy with the confession,and visits Ginny’s grandmother, and school friend. The friend tells him of a picture Ginny drew of a giant who leaves behind tiny porcupine gifts. Black makes the connection between Ginny’s death and two other child deaths in the area during the past decade. After picking the brains of a psychiatrist, Black decides that the murderer will strike again, but his former commanding officer refuses to re-open the case.
Whilst finally taking his holiday, Black purchases a run down gas station/store – this just happens to be in the general region of these murders. He befriends the waitress (Lori) at a local bar and her daughter Chrissy. One night Lori arrives at his home for refuge after being beaten by her ex-husband. Black takes them in and cares for them, especially Chrissy. He becomes suspicious of the attentions of a local preacher, until Chrissy tells him about ‘the wizard’, who gives her tiny chocolate porcupines. Black makes Chrissy keep this a secret with him, and sets a trap for the wizard in a forest clearing with a police team. The next bit bears a twist, so if you don’t want to know, don’t read any further in this section. The wizard doesn’t appear, so the police leave, and tell Lori what’s been going on. She storms up and retrieves Chrissy, who eventually loses his marbles. Unbeknownst to all parties, the wizard is killed in a motor accident en route to the trap.
One day Sean Penn is going to make an absolutely brilliant film. Sadly, this isn’t it. He is growing, both as an actor (witness: “Dead Man Walking”, “Carlito’s Way”, and in Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown”), and as a director. His last directorial effort: “The Crossing Guard”, brought together Jack Nicholson and erstwhile real life partner Anjelica Huston in a very low key drama, which had real merit.
Nicholson gives the central performance to this film too, and a very good performance it is too. For one thing, you are not constantly aware of the fact that ‘this is Jack Nicholson acting’ – something which has been a bane in his most recent work. Neither is he hammy, as he can sometimes be (most notably in “The Witches of Eastwick” and “Batman”). In fact there is a lot of excellent acting on display here. Many unexpectedly well known faces appear. On reading the cast list you expect an ensemble piece (like “The Big Chill”), but the cast really provide telling cameos here (much like Robert Altman’s “The Player”). Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, Sam Shepard (showing distinct signs of age, sadly), Mickey Rourke (extra-ordinarily good here), Benicio Del Toro – all were wonderful. The weakest link in the acting stakes was Penn’s wife Robin (Lori), who was somewhat unconvincing.
The music accompanying the film was interesting, and not obtrusive; the cinematography was beautiful, some very pretty scenes were glimpsed (and one or two gory ones). The film is completed by its opening scene, thus closing the circle. Its all very clever, with plenty of attention to detail. (Mind you, Jack Nicholson is not a natural fly fisher – perhaps he should have studied with the Queen Mum for tips.)
And yet. And yet, it just doesn’t work. Its difficult to point a finger and say exactly why this should be. The pace is a little slow, and about 20 minutes or so could be excised without losing anything from the plot. Many of the points made are heavily laboured too. Perhaps the screenplay is a tad pedestrian, or maybe the original story is the problem. The end result is that the sum of the parts provides more than the whole.