The Pledge (2001)


USA. 2001.


Director – Sean Penn, Screenplay – Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski, Based on the Novel by Friedrich Durrenmatt, Producers – Sean Penn, Michael Fitzgerald & Elie Samaha, Photography – Chris Menges, Music – Klaus Badelt & Hans Zimmer, Visual Effects – Industrial Light and Magic (Supervisor – Pablo Helman), Additional Visual Effects – Pacific Data Images (Supervisor – Kent D. Smith), Special Effects Supervisor – David Gauthier, Production Design – Bill Groom. Production Company – Morgan Creek/Franchise Pictures/Clyde is Hungry Films


Jack Nicholson (Jerry Black), Robin Wright Penn (Lori), Aaron Eckhart (Detective Stan Krolock), Sam Shepard (Eric), Benicio Del Toro (Toby Wadenah), Patricia Clarkson (Margaret Larsen), Tom Noonan (Reverend Gary Jackson), Vanessa Redgrave (Annalise Hansen), Harry Dean Stanton (Floyd Case), Helen Mirren (Psychologist), Mickey Rourke (James Olstadt), Dale Dickey (Strom), Brittany Tiplady (Becky Fisk)


Detective Jerry Black is only six hours from his retirement when he is called to a crime scene where a young girl has been brutally raped and murdered. He makes the promise to the girl’s mother that the killer will be found. His colleagues arrest an Indian who was seen at the crime scene and is discovered to have a history of rape and drug abuse. The Indian admits to the killing and moments later takes a cop’s gun and blows his head off. As Jerry departs to go fishing, he is haunted by a hunch that the Indian was not the killer. He digs deeper, finding that two other very similar killings have been conducted in the last few years. A drawing left by the dead girl convinces him the real killer is a tall man nicknamed The Wizard. However, he fails to find any evidence and so departs to his retirement, purchasing a small lakeside gas station. As he becomes involved with a local woman Lori, he comes to believe that her young daughter may be being targeted as the killer’s next victim.

Sean Penn first made a name for himself in his classic role as the stoner in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and thereafter established himself a role in the gossip magazines as a bad boy, fostered by his penchant for punching paparazzi and a troubled short-lived marriage to Madonna. In the last few years, Penn has not done much to shake his reputation but has at least shown those who at least looked beyond tabloid headlines that he has more depth. For the large part he has avoided doing mindless box-office blockbuster roles and concentrated on films of worth in the likes of Colors (1988), Casualties of War (1989), Dead Man Walking (1995) and The Thin Red Line (1998), something that was rewarded by Time magazine’s surprise naming him the Best American Actor in 2001. Most impressive though has been Penn’s emergence as a director with The Indian Runner (1991), The Crossing Guard (1995), The Pledge, Into the Wild (2007) and The Last Face (2016).

Sean Penn’s directorial films are deeply interior ones. They are about getting inside characters in emotional turmoil – Vietnam Vet Viggo Mortensen trying to adjust to ordinary life in The Indian Runner; Jack Nicholson swearing to kill the man who ran down his daughter in The Crossing Guard; and Nicholson again here vowing the titular pledge to capture the murderer. The difference in Sean Penn’s approach becomes apparent if you imagine The Pledge made as a standard thriller. There the film would have been tightened by more than half-an-hour’s running time and a good chunk of the middle cut; the love element would have been expanded out; the moral ambiguities that surround Jack Nicholson’s relationship with Robin Wright and her daughter would have been painted over with platitudes at the end; and we would have had a big shootout climax. Instead, Penn spends his time meditating on Nicholson’s retirement and eventually obsession – although this is something that has mixed results.

Certainly, The Pledge starts out well with the expectation that Sean Penn is directing a straight thriller. All the scenes with Jack Nicholson making the promise to the mother, the arrest of the Indian and Nicholson’s uncertainty about the case and starting to piece together clues about another suspect are absorbing thriller dramatics. It is just that about a third of the way into the film Penn drops out of thriller mode and the film slows down in a big way. It is probably an ill choice of topic for Penn to have chosen to make a film about a middle-aged cop’s retirement as for the better part of an hour, with the exception a few fitful jumps back into thriller mode, the audience feels every moment of Nicholson’s boredom and solitude. The film is not entirely uninteresting in these moments but watching scenes of Nicholson fishing, learning the rules of his chalet, trying to use a manual credit card reader and so on drag it right out. Although the film was given a multiplex release, the pacing is probably too slow to doom it to much other than an arthouse circuit release.

One aspect of Penn’s films is that they tend to build to big anti-climaxes. This is not meant as a criticism, merely an observation. In The Crossing Guard Penn built the whole film up to the murder of David Morse by Jack Nicholson but pulled away from it at the last moment. Penn does it not to disappoint audiences but in full knowledge of the fact that he is deliberately playing against Hollywood expectation – he has stated that in his films there exists no Hollywood virtue, only a realism where the just are sometimes punished equally along with the bad. The Pledge comes with an interesting such anti-climax. Penn allows us to become so engrossed in Jack Nicholson’s sedentary life and outbursts of paranoia that when he slips something in – the scene where Nicholson sits back allowing Robin Wright to buy a red dress for her daughter – that we suddenly sit bolt upright and go “Whoa, what did we just see happening?” The film then develops toward what looks like a big thriller climax only to have Penn pull away from it and breathtakingly reveal that Jack Nicholson has been manipulating the situation all along. Here Penn walks away from any type of thriller resolution, leaving us with a haunted sense of a good man having gone over the edge (and taken us with him) into totally morally black areas without noticing. There is a sombre twist ending that many will undoubtedly react negatively to for being such a downer. While The Pledge is not perfect, the subtlety of the journey Sean Penn has taken us on at that point is impressive.

(Nominee for Best Actor (Jack Nicholson) and Best Adapted Screenplay at this site’s Best of 2001 Awards).

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