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The Pledge   A-

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 Jeremiah Kipp

We all know Sly Jack. Grinning Jack. Smirking Jack with that devil of a twinkle in his gleaming eyes, an eyebrow slightly cocked. We know R.J. McMurphy and crazy Jack Torrance and the Joker and old Jack Scratch. He's been playing the role so long, it's second nature. Jack Nicholson flips it on like a switch, every Oscar night purring through those clever little one-liners. Even with his receding hairline and hulking, porcine frame, that glimmer of a grin still draws audiences like a moth to light.

What's remarkable about The Pledge, Nicholson's second collaboration with director Sean Penn after 1995's emotionally searing The Crossing Guard, is that we ain't faced with the same old Jack. Not at all. Something in the actor-director relationship between Nicholson and Penn allows this Academy Award winning actor to plumb depths he hasn't hit since his heyday in the '70s, and even then Jack was never so sensitive and wounded, so pathetic, raw and sloppy sad.

* * *

Jerry Black is that special role which brings Jack out of his familiar shell, delivering one of his best performances in the past 20 years (his other being wounded lion Freddy Gale in Penn's Crossing Guard). This soon-to-retire detective has weathered two unsuccessful marriages, a decent man living inside his own shadow. For years, he's defined himself through the job -- an intuitive, sensitive searcher whose battleground lies in the layers of evidence that accompany brutal crimes.

On his last night with the badge, he should be enjoying his farewell party at a pathetic Hawaiian joint, complete with bad shirts and flower necklaces. Instead, he opts to check out the remains of a dead little girl buried in the ice, the latest in a patterned row of serial child molestations and murders.

Black spends a long, uncompromising winter evening with the blood-spattered corpse. His upwardly mobile partner (Aaron Eckhart, In the Company of Men) coaxes a confession from the last man who saw the girl, a mentally retarded drifter (Benicio Del Toro, submerged in the gibbering vowels and feral eyes of this pathetic specimen). Somehow, Black suspects they haven't found the right man -- and he remembers the fateful pledge he made to the little girl's mother (Patricia Clarkson), a vow to track down the murderer, no matter what the cost.

* * *

The tense opening scenes are the set-up for a traditional thriller. It's here that The Pledge moves along a different, less trod path, devolving into a layered character study of existential confusion. Penn moves from the cold brilliance of shock white snow to the browns and oranges of dust in sunlight as Black retires to a small rural community.

Throughout his days as a private citizen, Black continues his seemingly pointless investigation, driving from town to town tracking the path of the murderer. Ultimately, he acclimates himself to this newfound small town life, purchasing a seedy roadside gas station from shifty Harry Dean Stanton, one of many familiar character faces that populate Penn's impressive supporting cast.

Sam Shepard, Vanessa Redgrave and Mickey Rourke also show up, perform in memorable scenes which last one or two minutes, then disappear. Helen Mirren is especially memorable in a revealing scene as a therapist whose probing eyes turn the tables on Black during an interview.

Our man Black spends most of his time fishing, smoking too many cigarettes, paying visits to Lori, the gap toothed, emotionally weathered, but still attractive barmaid (Robin Wright Penn) at the local saloon. Penn lingers on their trips to the local flea market, accompanied by naturalistic insert shots of shuffling, anonymous locals. Nicholson reads bedtime stories to the barmaid's daughter (Pauline Roberts) in his cigarette burned voice.

Penn has a keen enough eye to cast his wife, Mrs. Wright Penn, who finds a course, lived-in believability as the aging small-town girl, even able to play her forced romance with Nicholson for keeps. She's a fine, underappreciated actress. Nicholson finds some strong moments playing opposite her, presenting their first kiss with embarrassed fear, ashamed to be messing around with a girl who is young enough to be his daughter. (A far cry from his Academy Award winning turn in As Good As It Gets, when he impossibly made cute with perky Helen Hunt).

There are long, melancholy shots of imposing mountains in the distance as birds take flight. Smiling Jerry goes out fishing (again). It's a leisurely, deliberately paced time of domestic tranquillity, but there's a threat lurking underneath:

As he tries to begin this new life, tentative and unnerving plots swirl in Black's mind as he uses Lori's daughter as potential bait for the killer. She's blonde, petite, pretty. If he builds a swing set on his front lawn just out in front of the highway, perhaps his unsuspecting lure (an expectant child in a bright red dress), will draw out his nemesis. When a mysterious figure (Tom Noonan, of course, the shaky voiced, enigmatic monster from Manhunter) steps off the road to help the girl build a snowman ("Hey, I have an idea... would you like to hold my hat?"), Jerry Black may have found his man.

* * *

Or has he?

The Pledge doesn't concern itself with dogged police work. The suspense lies in whether or not Black is deluding himself with this holy mission. Jack Nicholson's performance keeps the cards close to his vest, playing the former detective as warm, eager to do good. He's obsessed in the way we imagine a White Knight should be, but living inside the fat, unshaved, sloppy veneer of a sad clown who drinks too much.

Jack doesn't grin or cock his eyebrows. His eyes are buried into his head like husks. The smile here is a curious one, sometimes floppy and sad or, at other moments, genuinely pleased with the thought that he just might be happy for once in his miserable life. He has a woman (Wright Penn) who loves him, a daughter figure, a house and fishing boat. In the simple pleasures, he could find a home. Time to enjoy another cigarette.

If only the nagging desperation of his pathetic quest would go away -- it can only lead to some absurd finale where his psychic foundations are shaken. Will he be able to pass his own test?

* * *

Think of Bruce Springsteen songs (which Penn has often employed in previous films) back when the Boss was first getting his act off the ground -- ballads of truck stops, screen doors slamming shut, lonely working men thinking about when that next paycheck is due, sleeping on the dusty hood of their old Pontiac, the sun setting on their dreams down by the river, smoking a cigarette on the old porch.

Then consider the movies of John Cassavettes or Hal Ashby -- movies from an earlier time back in the '70s when movies were willing to have flawed protagonists, faded John Steinbeck dreams, weary muscle and confusing sex. The arcs weren't always clear. The endings didn't always work out so peachy for our confused hero. Even the camera felt more scrappy and raw, zooming in or cutting away to catch glimpses of a larger world which surrounds these characters.

Springsteen, Cassavettes, Ashby and drunken poet Charles Bukowski inspire Sean Penn's world of losers and has-beens. While he's still finding his way as a storyteller, occasionally pushing a note of mysticism too far (with those mountain shots as birds take flight, come on), he's got a keen eye for nuance. Sometimes too keen, packing in so many layers that The Pledge occasionally feels long and unwieldy, like a wheelbarrow overladen with Birch. Penn still needs to pare down a bit, but his foundation is strong.

Nicholson wouldn't have walked the mile had he not shown enormous respect for Penn as a filmmaker. This is not just some hotshot actor who directs, pulling "dramatic moments" out of a who's who ensemble cast (like would-be auteurs such as Steve Buscemi, Robert Duvall, even Vincent Gallo). Penn chooses good scripts with sharp dialogue, but he's perceptive for small moments between the words, unspoken looks and gestures, small movements. This is what an actor's director should be.

Sean Penn is emerging as a bona fide filmmaker of note, his themes revolving around tormented, battered souls trying to make a go at what little they have in life. Their thwarted masculinity keeps getting in the way, and therein lies the absurd downfall.

Review published 02.15.2001.

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