Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Pledge Movie Review

This review was written in January 2001 and is presented here for the first time.

The commercials for The Pledge, a new psychological thriller directed by Sean Penn based on the book by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, suggest that it's a standard detective story. One might expect the hero of the film to hunt a crazed killer, who continues to feed on prey until he leaves enough clues for said hero to catch him. But it's more about the lengths to which this detective (recently retired) will go to stop the killing.

Jack Nicholson plays Detective Jerry Black, who gets involved in one last case three hours before his retirement officially begins. The crime is a gruesome one, in which a seven-year-old girl has been raped and mutilated, then left in the snowy wilderness for a young boy to find. Jerry makes a solemn promise to the parents of the deceased that he will catch the killer. This is the titular vow that motivates his every action throughout the film.


A young detective (Aaron Eckhart) is assigned to head the case and he finds an immediate suspect – a mentally disabled American Indian played by Benicio del Toro. Of course the evidence all points to his guilt and Eckhart shows great pleasure in pulling a confession from a man with the mental abilities of a toddler. But Jerry senses something is wrong, he knows they don't have the right man. But the case is closed when del Toro gets hold of an officer's gun and kills himself.

Jerry investigates further and finds two other cases in neighboring towns that are suspiciously similar to his own, but his retirement makes it difficult to be taken seriously. He is reasonably accused of having feelings of withdrawal from the job and not wanting to be alone (he has no family). He brings his newfound evidence (a drawing by the dead girl of a "giant" man and his black station wagon) to his superior (Sam Shepard), telling him he made a promise and that he's "old enough to remember when that meant something."  That statement reiterates the theme of the movie – Jerry doesn't want to let down a grieving mother.

Jerry is smart enough, however, to realize that his former colleagues will eventually have him committed if he continues investigating. So he appears to go on living the life of a lonely retired man. He rents a room in a lodge on a lake, spending his days fishing. Then he makes what seems at first to be an odd move in buying a service station. We realize later he did so because he hopes to spot that black wagon. He befriends a young down-on-her-luck woman (Robin Wright-Penn) with a young daughter. And what seems to be a huge coincidence is actually calculated planning on Jerry's part. He intends to use the young girl as bait to catch his man. Ignoring that he has lied to her, his main goal is to fulfill his obligation. In a sense, he is going mad. He's insanely intent on catching a killer only he believes exists, and he does almost anything to accomplish his goal.

Even if the movie does not play out in the most satisfying way (the ending is a bit of an enigma), Penn directs the film with great pacing and tone. Nicholson's performance is one of his best in years, if not of his career. He doesn't utilize the insane glares which earned fame in some of his previous roles. He's adept at showing Jerry's great affection for Lori and her daughter even while having a hidden agenda. Penn also peppers the movie with outstanding supporting players including del Toro, Shepherd, Patricia Clarkson, Vanessa Redgrave, Harry Dean Stanton, Helen Mirren and Mickey Rourke.

Penn has matured into a deft visual storyteller. This is hopefully a sign of things to come for both his future directing career and the rest of the year in film.

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