Echo Bridge Entertainment brings two interesting films to Blu-ray for the first time. One of their latest double feature discs includes director Robert Benton’s The Human Stain (2003) and writer-director Sean Penn’s The Crossing Guard (1995).
Adapted by Nicolas Meyer (Star Trek II, IV, and VI) from the novel of the same name by Philip Roth, The Human Stain packs an abundance of plot threads into an hour and 45 minutes. Professor Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), dean of Athena College, is lecturing a class when he inquires—to no one in particular—about some students who have never shown up throughout the whole semester. “Does anyone know if they exist, or are they just spooks?”
Though Silk clearly meant “ghosts” in this context, it turns out the absent students in question were, in fact, African-American. Word of Silk’s comment reaches them, complaints are filed, and suddenly the professor faces disciplinary action. Outraged, Silk resigns. But his day gets much worse when his wife dies suddenly after suffering a pulmonary embolism. Silk feels her death was hastened by news of the “racist remark” scandal and his abrupt resignation. He contacts writer Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) to write his story.
It’s a fine set-up, gripping even. Everything about Silk’s rage feels justified as his life has crumbled around him due to political correctness run amok. But the film loses focus as soon as it begins introducing new plot elements. Silk begins dating a woman half his age, Faunia (Nicole Kidman), whose lifestyle and background is seemingly as far removed from his own as can be. Her ex-husband Lester (Ed Harris), a bigoted and mentally troubled Vietnam Vet, begins causing a great deal of trouble. He holds Faunia responsible for the deaths of their children and now can’t stand to see his ex-wife dating a Jewish man.
There’s a big twist at the heart of The Human Stain that emerges during the extensive flashback sequences that fill in Silk’s backstory. Even nearly a decade later, I’m hesitant to reveal it. The film works so much better when the initially confusing secret hits the viewer without warning, turning everything we’ve seen before upside down. Ultimately however, the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. What may have worked beautifully in the novel (which I haven’t read) needed further streamlining in order to work cinematically. Hopkins turns in a reliably sturdy performance. Kidman and Harris are excellent in their supporting roles. It’s a highly intriguing film, but in the end the tangled themes never quite come together.
The Crossing Guard was Sean Penn’s second directorial effort, following 1991’s The Indian Runner. It stars Jack Nicholson as Freddy Gale, a man driven to wild excess by his grief over the death of his daughter. She was fatally struck by a drunk driver (prior to the events of the film). After a five-year prison term for manslaughter, the man responsible, John Booth (David Morse), is being released from prison. Freddy wants revenge. He plans to kill John, going so far as to reveal this plan to his ex-wife Mary (Anjelica Huston) and her husband Roger (The Band’s Robbie Robertson).
He isn’t quite so sure of himself when he breaks into John’s trailer and holds him at gunpoint. They agree to revisit the situation in three days, giving John a chance to experience a little post-prison life. From there we see the parallel lives of Freddy, partying and having sex with strippers, and John, trying to come to terms with his guilt while building a new relationship with Jojo (Robin Wright Penn).
The Crossing Guard mines some deep emotions. Freddy essentially stopped living life after his daughter’s death and can’t seem to realize his desire for revenge has destroyed him. The conclusion of the film struck me as a bit false when I first saw the film in ’95. I hoped I’d see it in a different light all these years later, but no dice. Penn fumbles a bit when trying to bring the emotional bloodletting to a close. But it’s a worthy effort, buoyed by excellent lead performances by Nicholson and Morse.
The Human Stain looks pretty solid in this high definition presentation. Close-ups, in particular, boast a pleasing level of fine detail. Wider shots are a bit less sharp at times, but never distractingly so. The source print was clean, resulting in an image free of dirt or scratches. Nothing to write home about, but it’s more than acceptable for a budget title. Even less exciting is the 2.0 Stereo audio that does just enough to get the job done: clear dialogue, no distortion issues.
The older and lower-budget of the two films, The Crossing Guard is easily the more problematic visually. The 1080p transfer leaves an awful lot to be desired. The image is slightly soft throughout, with notably weak black levels (dark gray is about as close as it ever gets). There are also white and black specs that pop up frequently due to a dirty print. It’s far from unwatchable, it’s just not pretty. The 2.0 Stereo soundtrack is, again, serviceable.
Special features are limited. The Human Stain includes a deleted scene and both films are accompanied by a promotional “making of” featurette.