Friday January 19, 2001
In "The Pledge," his third film as a director, Sean Penn once again demonstrates that he is a gifted filmmaker whose abilities don't count for as much as they should because of how fanatically he clings to a narrow, reductive view of the human condition.
Starring Jack Nicholson as a dour policeman who gets increasingly obsessed with a brutal murder he has sworn to solve, "The Pledge" showcases Penn's ability to both attract and work extremely well with top-drawer fellow actors. Aside from co-star Robin Wright Penn, the film includes appearances (albeit often for only a single scene) by Benicio Del Toro, Aaron Eckhart, Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, Sam Shepard and Harry Dean Stanton.
Penn, as he did in his previous "The Indian Runner" and "The Crossing Guard," also demonstrates a directorial focus and intensity, plus the ability to create mood and ambience while getting a message across. However, it turns out to be the same monotonous message every time--and it's not "Have a nice day."
Though his skill as a director improves from film to film, Penn never tires of rigidly insisting to us that life, that brutal, nasty, unfair business, is simply too grim to be endured. His people are often found in misery, in tears, in extremis, and sitting through this long dirge of a movie is like walking inexorably toward an execution that feels suspiciously like our own.
As a director and a man of vision, Penn is under no obligation to have a cheerier outlook, much as his films might make us desperate for one. The problem is, rather, that his devotion to his point of view is so strident and single-minded, so lacking in nuance, that it becomes one-dimensional and loses the ability to move us. Penn's unending parade of unhappy situations is simply too insistent, his suffocating, claustrophobic worldview more of an assault than the revelation he perhaps hopes it will be.
"The Pledge" is based on a 1958 novel by celebrated Swiss writer Friedrich Durrenmatt, and despite a change of scene from Zurich to Nevada, the debut screenplay by Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski sticks close to the somber original. But subtle changes in emphasis have turned what on the page is an elegant puzzle with an absurdist twist into something that, not surprisingly, is even more depressing.
Nicholson plays homicide detective Jerry Black, world-weary as only a veteran policeman about to retire can be. But even though he's the kind of guy who's seen it all twice, Black is haunted by the feeling that he's not quite ready to have nothing but a walker to look forward to.
This emotion comes to a head at Black's retirement party, when the detective--officially on the payroll for just another six hours--insists on being part of the team called out to investigate the horrific rape and murder of an 8-year-old second-grader. (The brutal death of a small girl was a key plot point in "The Crossing Guard" as well.)
More than that, Black ends up being the person who tells the little girl's parents what has happened to their daughter. Her frenzied mother (Patricia Clarkson) pulls down a Vatican-sized crucifix and makes the detective promise, by his soul's salvation, that he will capture the person who did this awful thing.
Suspicion first falls on a previous offender spotted fleeing the scene (Del Toro), but Black, his detective's instinct working overtime, has the feeling that this is not the man. Gradually, the case comes to consume him; all other considerations fade from view in the face of the awful promise he made and feels compelled to honor.
As the man so obsessed, Nicholson delivers acting that is effortless as always, though making Jerry Black's sleepwalking character involving is beyond anyone's abilities. Even the addition of the always excellent Wright Penn, the director's wife, as a young mother and bartender who enters Black's life, does not make much of a difference.
From first frame to last, "The Pledge" is a forced march toward certain disaster, a scenario only passionate believers in predestination are likely to savor.
The Pledge, 2001. R, for strong violence and language. Morgan Creek Productions Inc. and Franchise Pictures present a Clyde Is Hungry Films production, released by Warner Bros. Director Sean Penn. Producers Michael Fitzgerald, Sean Penn, Elie Samaha. Executive producer Andrew Stevens. Screenplay Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski, based on the novel by Friedrich Durrenmatt. Cinematographer Chris Menges. Editor Jay Cassidy. Costumes Jill Ohanneson. Music Hans Zimmer, Klaus Badelt. Production design Bill Groom. Art director Helen Jarvis. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes. Jack Nicholson as Jerry Black. Robin Wright Penn as Lori. Sam Shepard as Eric Pollack. Aaron Eckhart as Stan Krolak. Vanessa Redgrave as Annalise Hansen. Benicio Del Toro as Toby Jay Wadenah.