Working less for conventional suspense than for nuances of existential uncertainty, Penn’s film also has the benefit of a large, excellent cast. Nicholson gives one of his most stolid and least showy performances, and Robin Wright Penn is excellent as the battered waitress with whom the detective forms a fragile, temporary alliance. Both actors give a sense of dogged stubbornness rooted in the film’s Western setting.
The story’s landscape of characters and faces is large enough to have room for Sam Shepard, Aaron Eckhart, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, Mickey Rourke, Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Noonan while still making less than optimal use of Benicio Del Toro. Shepard and Eckhart make distinctive contributions to the police story elements, while Redgrave and Mirren add briefly but tellingly to the tale’s moral and psychological convolutions.
Rourke, Stanton and Del Toro make apt contributions to the film’s bitterly perceptive sense of local color.
In the interest of narrative suspense, Noonan’s character is best left unspecified, but his is a particularly disturbing role in this genuinely haunting film. As in The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard, Sean Penn shows himself to be one of the most daring and uncompromising directors working in the off-Hollywood vein.