The Pledge (2001)

The Pledge (2001)
  • Time: 124 min
  • Genre: Crime | Drama | Mystery
  • Director: Sean Penn
  • Cast: Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright, Benicio Del Toro, Patricia Clarkson, Aaron Eckhart


The night he retires as a Nevada sheriff, Jerry Black pledges to the mother of a murdered girl that he will find the killer. Jerry doesn’t believe the police arrested the right man; he discovers this is the third incident in the area in the recent past with victims young, blond, pretty, and small for their age. So he buys an old gas station in the mountains near the crimes in order to search for a tall man who drives a black station wagon, gives toy porcupines as gifts, and calls himself the wizard: clues from a drawing by the dead girl. Jerry’s solitary life gives way to friendship with a woman and her small, blond daughter. Has Jerry neglected something that may prove fatal?

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  • De Niro. Pacino. Hoffman. The unvain gods who helped shape modern cinema, the turks who made the glory days of the Seventies their own personal stomping grounds. Their dominance may have ebbed as they’ve aged but their powers are still in full effect. Witness Jack Nicholson, the titan of this dying breed, who delivers a mesmerizingly implosive performance in The Pledge.

    The film, perhaps best described as an existentialist drama with spurts of suspense, is adapted from Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s slight novel and is directed by Sean Penn. Let me repeat: this is a film by Sean Penn and that should be warning enough. The Pledge may be marketed as a commercial movie by a major motion picture studio but it’s saturated with Penn’s maverick blood.

    Nicholson is Nevada homicide detective Jerry Black, whose entry into retirement is waylaid by the grisly murder of an eight-year-old girl. Jerry breaks away from his own retirement party to accompany his boss Eric Pollack (Sam Shepard) and younger colleague Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart) to the snow-blanketed crime scene. He soon finds himself delivering news of the girl’s death to the parents. The grief-riven mother (Patricia Clarkson) extracts a promise from Jerry to find her little girl’s murderer. So on the cross that the little victim made, on his soul salvation, Jerry pledges.

    Yet how far will Jerry go to keep his pledge? Is continuing his own independent investigation after Krolak emotionally masturbates a confession out of prime suspect Toby Jay Wadenah (Benico Del Toro) far enough? Is moving into a small town where the killer may dwell far enough? How about using the daughter (Pauline Roberts) of a local waitress (Robin Wright Penn) he has befriended as bait? Is that far enough?

    It’s this section of the film that intrigues most – is this a man slowly succumbing to his frailty or propelled by his fortitude? Is this a man who has the morality of an angel or one whose morality is so intense that he utilizes the devil’s means to keep it intact? Is it persistence that keeps him going or psychosis? Here is a man who believes in the innocence of a suspect others have long deemed guilty, a man who can spare a father the further horror of viewing his daughter’s blood-letted body (“Because we hardly dared to look ourselves,” Jerry says with a firm tenderness), a man who can serve as surrogate father to the waitress’s daughter. And yet…

    Nicholson and Penn have collaborated before: in The Crossing Guard, Nicholson vowed vengeance on the drunk driver who killed his daughter. His grief became his blood, his marrow, his DNA. Nicholson’s performance was one of the most egregiously overlooked of the year: raw, wincingly palpable, searingly affecting. Watching him, it was hard to keep looking and yet impossible to look away. The same is true for his playing of Jerry Black: it hits you deep.

    Penn stages some impressive sequences — the discovery of the girl’s body is subtle yet sinister in its creeping atmospheric dread; the din of the turkey-filled barn like a perverse choir of vultures as Jerry breaks the news to the parents; the uneasy prodding intimacy Krolak emanates as he interrogates Wadenah; the way the snow that covers everything feels like a contagion; the unlikely terror of a snow plow passing by a little girl. There’s a shamanic quality to many parts of the film, a moody mysticism that animates the most mundane objects with portent.

    Yet there’s a stubbornness about the film – it doesn’t quite let you in despite the grand guignol of emotions that are on display. It may have something to do with the explicitness of the emotions – few films have actors so emotionally naked – it attracts as much as it repels and it’s undeniably discomfiting. However, that is the power of the film. Sean Penn is doing things on his own terms and he’s not giving an inch.

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