Writer-director Sean Penn, whose show-biz career has been primarily as an actor, of course, proves with "The Crossing Guard" that he knows a lot about the art of creating believable characters on film. He extracts remarkable performances from Jack Nicholson, David Morse, Anjelica Huston and a strong supporting cast in this highly personal independent film.

But as a screenwriter and director, Penn needs some polish — his script could have used a rewrite or two, and the film's pacing and structure seem off.

A dour tale of revenge and redemption, "The Crossing Guard" feels more like an acting exercise than a movie.

Nicholson has the central role, and he's quite affecting as an embittered Los Angeles jeweler whose life for several years has been a raggedy series of sex and alcohol binges. He spends most of his time hanging out at a sleazy strip joint where he dates the strippers (primarily Priscilla Barnes) and drinks himself into a nightly stupor.

But at home, he has something else on his mind. He's marking a calendar on his wall, X's to count down the days until David Morse is released from prison.

Morse plays a felon who was convicted after killing Nicholson's young daughter several years earlier in a drunken-driving hit-and-run accident. But the fact that Morse has done time isn't enough for Nicholson. He's been plotting to kill Morse when he gets out.

As that day approaches, Nicholson visits his ex-wife (Anjelica Huston) and her husband (Robbie Robertson) to announce his intentions. He can't seem to stand the fact that she has gotten on with her life, which includes the care of Nicholson's other children, whom he has neglected. Shocked and appalled, she throws him out.

Once Morse is released, the film splits into two trails, one following Nicholson as he tries to muster up the courage to shoot Morse, while lamenting his own losses. And the other follows Morse, who, in an effort to rebuild his life, reunites with his parents (Piper Laurie, Richard Bradford) and takes up with an artist (Robin Wright) but is almost as grief-stricken as Nicholson over the incident.

This is challenging, perhaps even daunting material, and Penn's effort to explore it is sincere, if ill-advised and self-indulgent. Riddled with pointless and gratuitous touches (especially the scenes in the strip joint) and dialogue that belies the pretentiousness of it all, the film meanders aimlessly and endlessly.

The only real saving graces are the performances. Nicholson is a fascinating actor, of course, and his intense work provides the film with several memorable, powerful outbursts (in particular a telephone monologue about a dream). But it is the quiet, less flamboyant characterization by Morse that gives the film itself whatever credibility lingers in the end.

"The Crossing Guard" is rated R for violence, sex, nudity, profanity and vulgarity.