You're Sean Penn. You've just won an Oscar for a raw, punishing, desperate performance. How do you follow it up? Well, another raw, punishing, desperate performance, obviously. So, it's the kind of pro turn Penn can pull off in his sleep by now, but he is brilliant as Sam Bicke, the hopeless-salesman-turned-hopeless-terrorist in the crosshairs of Tadpole-inker Niels Mueller's provocative helming debut.
An intense, throttled character study, The Assassination Of Richard Nixon mainlines eerie post-9/11 prescience as it tracks the slo-mo meltdown of Bicke, a hapless everyschmuck who finds the American Dream turning to crap in his hands. Failing at his job, alienated from his ex-wife (Naomi Watts) and his future ambitions brickwalled by bureaucracy, he finally hits on an idea to strike a blow for the little man. The plan? To hijack a passenger plane and plough it into the White House - - offing Tricky Dicky in the name of truth and honesty.
A sadcore sociopath more like De Niro's Rupert Pupkin than nearly-namesake Travis Bickle, Bicke is one excruciating loser. But Penn brews his neurotic tailspin through shreds of sympathy, his pleading eyes and clenched frustrations lapsing gradually into a doomed hundred-yard-stare. And if Penn's just a little too good at nailing these kind of tortured souls (the autopilot über-thesping doesn't quite bore deep enough into Bicke's frazzled mind), he gets superb support from Watts, Don Cheadle, Michael Wincott and - - best of the lot - - gnarly Jack Thompson as Bicke's bully-boy boss, firing out the best sell-or-die mantras this side of Mamet.
Plus, dips in momentum aside, there's no shaking the unnerving chill-factor in Mueller's loaded portrait of American disillusionment. Come the finale, Bicke is, of course, no better at hijacking than he is at anything else. Be warned: the devastating climax is guaranteed to make your next check-in at Heathrow a decidedly twitchy affair...
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It's another Penn masterclass, with the irony-edged title hiding a compelling study of slowburn despair hitting the powderkeg.