The Pledge

 

Laura Clifford 

Robin Clifford 

When Reno homicide detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) leaves his own retirement party to assist at the remote mountain murder site of an eight-year-old girl, he doesn't know he's taking a life-altering step in "The Pledge."

Laura:
"The Pledge" may begin with a couple of hoary movie cliches (a detective on the verge of retirement coupled with a potential serial killer on the loose), but from this jumping off point, the film takes few expected turns.

Jerry proves his worth and experience at the crime scene by advising his partner Stan (Aaron Eckhart, "Nurse Betty") to get the child's buttons bagged for fingerprinting purposes.  The inept local cops have not only compromised the crime scene, but have dragged their feet on notifying the victim's parents. Jerry takes this duty on only to find himself making a solemn oath to Mrs. Larsen (Patricia Clarkson, "High Art") that he will find her daughter's killer.

When a suspect is quickly brought into custody, Stan gets the feeble minded native American (Benicio Del Toro, "Traffic") to confess, but Jerry isn't convinced.  Under the guise of his retirement fishing trip, Black continues to investigate the crime, even purchasing a gas station at crossroads he's convinced the killer will visit.  Jerry also forms an attachment to single mother Lori (Robin Wright Penn, "Message in a Bottle") and her eight year old daughter Chrissy.

Adapted from the Friedrich Durrenmatt novel by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski, "The Pledge" is a character study of a man so obsessed with his mission that he loses the chance to make a life for himself. Director Sean Penn ("The Crossing Guard") has assembled an incredible cast to flesh out the story as he focuses on Black/Nicholson's journey. Penn gets the closest thing to a real performance out of the superstar that Nicholson's given in years.  Unfortunately, Nicholson has become such a larger than life caricature of himself that when he attempts to shed his own persona you sometimes see the gears turning.

Support is almost an embarrassment of riches with some of the best in the business appearing in little more than one scene cameos.  Firstly, Benicio Del Toro goes out on a limb with a strange interpretation of the feeble minded initial suspect and not only pulls it off but makes an indelible impression while doing so.  Vanessa Redgrave is perfect as the Scandinavian grandmother of the victim who professes to be 'all business' when giving her granddaughter her piano lesson.  (Great resemblance casting as well - Redgrave looks like the mother of Patricia Clarkson.)  Helen Mirren is a psychologist Jerry goes to for help to interpret a drawing of the victim's.  Mirren creates tension (ably assisted by Penn's multiple POV editing choices) by turning the tables on Jerry's motivations (which in turn present him as a possible suspect).  Lois Smith ("Twister") is good as a disabled, elderly mother who may not see her son for what he is while Tom Noonan ("What Happened Was...") is creepily effective as the religious man with an interest in Chrissy.  Mickey Rourke is the broken father of a missing girl.  Harry Dean Stanton is the bored gas station owner who gets an unexpected windfall.  Sam Shepard is Jerry's former boss.

In the larger supporting roles, Wright Penn captures a broken woman happy to just be just getting along, amazed when she gets something better.  Aaron Eckhart makes Jerry's partner Stan a young Turk who can't wait to brush aside the older guy to step prematurely into the limelight.

Technically, Penn is supported by cinematographer Chris Menges ("A World Apart") and editor Jay Cassidy ("The Crossing Guard") who capture the gorgeous terrain (British Columbia, Canada, stands in for Nevada) and intimate interiors in unconventional ways (overhead shots, dissolves, overlapping time sequence edits).  An early scene, where Jerry approaches the Larsens to deliver bad news, is staged amidst thousands of turkeys who drown out the (unneeded) dialogue - a unique and brilliant choice. The score by Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt ("Gladiator") enhances the story by using musical themes to denote character (native American drum percussion worked with piano, for instance).

"The Pledge" has a unique, albeit open ended conclusion which may leave some viewers feeling unsatisfied.  Penn has clearly taken the artistic high road here, and while he doesn't always succeed, he's created a haunting piece of work.

B+

Robin:
Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) is only hours away from retirement with the Reno, Nevada police department when he learns of the brutal murder and rape of a little girl in a nearby town. Drawn to the case like a firehouse horse to flame, Jerry helps with the investigation and volunteers to tell the girl's parents of her death. He opens a Pandora's box of problems for himself, though, when he vows to find the murderer in Sean Penn's "The Pledge."

Director Penn, from the start of his helming career with "Indian Runner" through "The Crossing Guard" and now with "The Pledge," has proven to be a serious filmmaker who knows his craft, but fails to give a range of emotion to his work. He explores the darker side of life in all of his behind-the-camera efforts and provides a good character showcase for his stars, but he is too earnest in his efforts. As such, there is a relentless quality to "The Pledge" as we see Jerry vow, on his mortal soul, to find the killer of little Ginny.

The stage is set within minutes that this is the story of a man, a cop for a lifetime, facing the unknowns of retirement. Like an old bloodhound too tired to continue but too proud to quit, Jerry, in his waning hours as a police detective, latches on to his last case - the brutal murder of the little girl. The case becomes an obsession for the ex-cop when he pledges to the girl's mother, on a cross Ginny made herself, to solve the case, no matter what. It's a character study by Nicholson that falters only a little along the way and is a nice departure from his usual "Jack."

Joining Nicholson is a collection of actors who settle nicely into the film tapestry created by Penn and his companions. Robin Wright Penn goes out on a limb, forgoing glamour for gritty in her perf as a bruised and battered woman and mother who accepts Jerry's offer of protection from further abuse. Wright Penn gives an arc to her role as Lori, who trusts Jerry implicitly only to have that trust tested by his obsessive dedication to fulfill his pledge to another. When Lori sees that Jerry put her daughter, Chrissy (Pauline Roberts), in harms way to honor his promise, she, too, sees the depth of his obsession. Aaron Eckhart is serviceable as Jerry's former partner, Stan Krolak). Benicio Del Toro gives yet another different performance to his growing resume of character roles.

It's amusing to see the star power of someone like Sean Penn when he builds a project like "The Pledge." Besides his second time collaboration with Nicholson, the helmer attracts a bevy of name actors who fill in the small and cameo roles in a who's who of Hollywood. Vanessa Redgrave lends her grand dame personage to the touching performances as little Ginny's grandma. Also appearing are Sam Shepard, Mickey Rourke, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Noonan and Helen Mirren in a variety of small perfs that help flesh out the background of "The Pledge."

The story is adapted by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski from the novel by Friedrich Duerrenmatt. The tale is many things, besides its character study by Nicholson, including investigation of murder and the search for a child killer. There is an obviousness to the story, not unlike Jerry's own, that make the unraveling of false leads and would-be killers a device used to misdirect the viewer from the real killer. The ambiguity of the ending and Jerry's plunge into mental collapse make "The Pledge" more interesting as a character study than a murder yarn.

The techs behind the camera are outstanding. Chris Menges provides unconventional photography that pulls you in close to the action, using the camera to give very different points of view. Production design is striking, at times, especially when Jerry goes the turkey ranch owned by Ginny's parents. In a brief moment of humor, the turkeys appear to be gathered to hear Jerry's bad news, holding on to his every word. It's a striking image.

Helmer Penn knows his craft and how to get good perfs from his actors. His unrelenting stalwartness as a director is keeping him from infusing humanity into his directing work, though, and he keeps the viewer at arm's length throughout his telling. Good acting, especially from Jack Nicholson, helps save the day and I give "The Pledge" a B.

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