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The Pledge   B+

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Sean Penn
Writers: Jerzy Kromolowski, Mary Olson-Kromolowski (based on the novel by Friedrich Durrenmatt)
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Aaron Eckhart, Sam Shepard, Benicio Del Toro, Mickey Rourke, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren.

Review by Rob Vaux

Though it presents itself as a police thriller, The Pledge is really more of a character drama, presenting a haunted detective who hides his growing obsession behind a calm, observant facade. It uses its plot as a backdrop to mark the slow descent of a decent man, and to ask probing ethical questions about the limits of good intentions. As a crime story, it would be engaging enough on its own, but it gains it true strength in the measured and disciplined study of its protagonist -- and finds an actor in Jack Nicholson who can pull it off flawlessly.

Nicholson's Jerry Black is a retiring policeman in Reno, Nevada, the sort of dedicated cop which litter movie screens like stale popcorn. As we get to know him, however, there's something very different going on behind his eyes. He doesn't talk much; rather, he watches everything around him intently and keeps his opinions close to the vest. His love of fishing shows a patient, methodical side that apparently makes him a sterling police detective. As the film opens, his colleagues are throwing him a retirement party that makes it clear how deeply they admire him. In the middle of the party, two of his friends get a call, and Jerry tags along as a sort of last hurrah. The crime is gruesome -- a little girl has been murdered in the snow -- and he ends up delivering the news to her grief-stricken parents. In the midst of their interchange, the mother extracts a promise from him: to find the killer no matter what. Jerry agrees, his calmness belying the absolute commitment he expresses.

A suspect is quickly caught, which essentially closes the case, but Jerry doesn't believe they have the right man. He becomes convinced that the real killer is still out there. His efforts drive him out of retirement, and into some very dark corners of his own soul. With a rough physical profile and an idea of what the killer's car looks like, he purchases a gas station in the area and begins watching for suspects. As time passes, he befriends a local single mother (Robin Wright Penn), whose little girl is remarkably similar to the first victim. Friendship soon turns to romance and Jerry soon finds himself with a rich fulfilling life. But his original purpose remains unblunted. As we watch him grow closer to his new family, the unsettling question arises as to whether he truly cares for them... or if he's just using the girl as bait for his phantom killer.

The Pledge focuses on its subject with the same methodical care that the character himself exhibits. Director Sean Penn (yes, that Sean Penn) does an admirable job of keeping the thriller elements present, yet never overwhelming, and placing Jerry's increasingly unsettling efforts in strong relief. He also makes full use of the northern Nevada scenery; his naturalistic technique is reminiscent of The Affliction, another movie about an obsessed lawmen, and forms a strong background for the drama to take place. As might be expected from an actor-turned-director, he gives tremendous leeway to his performers as well. A lot of the supporting players get showy speeches, which becomes distracting at times. Yet it also disguises some subtle clues, both to the mystery and to Jerry's behavior, which can't be fully appreciated until the film itself is over.

With such stellar direction behind him, Nicholson is able to tackle his character head-on. He delivers a quiet, three-dimensional portrayal, miles away from the over-the-top Joker-type roles with which most people associate him. Jerry's clinical nature hides some very deep emotional holes, and Nicholson shows them to us without ever resorting to cheap theatrics. As the plot quietly unfolds, The Pledge constantly returns to the central question: is Jerry going crazy, or are his policeman's instincts true? Nicholson's performance and Penn's direction keeps us guessing right up to the end, without ever devolving into clichés or stock emotions.

Cops and robbers stories are a dime a dozen in the movies, and the notion of yet another one isn't cause for excitement. But The Pledge has a lot more than shoot-outs on its mind, and uses its crime thriller trappings to deliver a brooding meditation on the cost of doing the right thing. With a sure hand and a steady eye, Penn crafts a wholly admirable picture out of seemingly stock material. It doesn't hurt to have Big Jack in your corner either, giving his best performance in quite a while. If every thriller in the next 12 months has half the intelligence and craftsmanship as The Pledge, we're in for a very good year indeed.

Review published 02.06.2001.

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