The Pledge Review
Sean Penn has consistently proven himself one of America’s finest acting talents but his skills behind the camera lens are no less impressive. Penn’s first two directorial features, The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard, demonstrated his ability to elicit first class performances from his actors as well as a willingness to explore human emotions at their most intense. His films have been first and foremost character-based, offering an emotional honesty and spiritual resonance all-too-rarely seen in other more mainstream Hollywood fare. In each of his films, Penn has shown a great affinity with lost souls, characters who have lost their way in life, like the brother who cannot adjust to normal life after the Vietnam war in The Indian Runner, or the husband and wife alienated from each other by the loss of their daughter in The Crossing Guard, not to mention the crushing guilt of the man who took her away from them. Penn’s third directorial outing, The Pledge, continues this theme of loss and grief, examining the burden on the soul of a man pledged to finding the killer of a young girl. Although some have found Penn’s films too ponderous and overwrought, even pretentious, there is no doubting the sincerity and sense of compassion with which the director sketches his characters, nor the powerful and soulful performances given by the actors in these roles. In fact, The Pledge is probably Penn’s finest work to date, lacking as it does the self-indulgent philosophising and narrative circuitousness that marred his first two films. Here, although he shows minimal interest in adhering to the conventions of the murder mystery genre, Penn, aided by co-screenwriters Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski, manages to keep the story centred and intriguing despite the film’s unusually languid pace, and The Pledge succeeds as a sad, at times disturbing but nonetheless beautifully observed behavioural study of a retired police officer trying to bring some purpose to the twilight years of his life. It also provides star Jack Nicholson with one of his best acting roles in years, reminding the audience (as he did to a lesser extent in The Crossing Guard) that he is capable of so much more than the kind of clichéd, Jack-the-lad type performance he has been phoning in in recent years.
After a disorienting opening scene, the film cuts back in time to reveal Nevada police detective Jerry Black’s (Jack Nicholson) last day on the job. During his ‘surprise’ retirement party, a call comes in informing Jerry’s colleagues that the raped and mutilated body of an eight-year-old girl has been found in the snow. Eager to escape his own party, Jerry asks to go along, even volunteering to inform the victim’s parents of what has happened when no one else steps forward. Jerry makes a solemn promise to the girl’s mother to find her killer on his “soul’s salvation” but when a prime suspect, a mentally handicapped Indian seen fleeing the scene of the crime, is arrested, Jerry refuses to believe that he is the culprit, despite the man’s criminal record. Unable to let go of his doubts and suspicions about the case, Jerry embarks on his own personal investigation, talking to the victim’s family and friends, turning up a promising lead concerning a character dubbed ‘The Wizard’, the man he comes to believe is the real killer, responsible for not just one but three child homicides. Despite the fact of his retirement and the scepticism of his police friends, Jerry continues to pursue the case, declaring with steely conviction: “I made a promise”. Believing that another murder will soon occur, Jerry uses his retirement money to buy a rundown gas station situated within the region where the murders have taken place, hoping to catch the killer on his own. He meets and begins a new relationship with troubled local waitress Lori (Robin Wright Penn) but his overzealous and all-consuming desire to fulfil his promise threatens not only their relationship but also his own sanity and the safety of her young daughter.
Penn has assembled an outstanding supporting cast here and although the (often brief) appearance of so many well-known stars – Vanessa Redgrave, Benicio Del Toro, Mickey Rourke to name but a few - can be distracting, the quality of the acting sucks the viewer back in again. Personally speaking, I could not find a single dud performance in the entire film but there is no question that this movie belongs to its star, Jack Nicholson. He is better here than he has been in years, recalling the kind of masterful work he did in the 70s, speaking Robert Towne’s dialogue or working for directors like Bob Rafelson or Milos Forman. Gone are the cynical wisecracks, the rascally charm, and all the lovable but well-worn physical gestures that have of late become the trademarks of a Jack Nicholson performance; here, they are replaced with a true character performance that is unexpectedly but admirably subdued, compassionate and utterly believable. Nicholson’s portrayal of this ultimately tragic figure reflects every nuance of a character attempting to make something good come out of such a monstrous tragedy, conveying the determination, the need, the self-doubt and finally the desperation of a man trying to fulfil his promise. Although we could argue that much of what happens to Jerry stems from his obvious retirement anxiety, a fact seemingly borne out by his visit to a psychiatrist (Helen Mirren) whose questions about life after the police force genuinely unnerve him, perhaps the real reason is more complicated, relating to his very character. We learn that Jerry is a twice-divorced cop with no family of his own, and Nicholson is the kind of actor who can show us all the disappointments of one man’s life with just a simple look or gesture. We come to understand that this case offers him the chance to validate his life, however, Nicholson also never lets us forget the burden that such a commitment weighs on the shoulders of someone who simply cannot let things go. We know that he is a decent, well-respected and dedicated policeman but in the end, the fact that he cannot shut things out proves to be his undoing. When he speaks to another police officer about a similar child murder, the officer tells him: “this stuff just doesn’t bother me like it does other people.” Jerry’s silence speaks volumes; he is not de-sensitised like his fellow law officers, the job doesn’t get put aside at the end of the day. As we observe in the movie, Jerry can’t just put his watch away. The tears of bereaved families, their shared recollections, the grisly sight of those murder scene photos and, of course, his own promise, all these things are imprinted on Jerry’s soul, eating away at him, refusing to be ignored.
We also learn that Jerry is a devoted fisherman and this standing apparently extends not just to his patient and methodical nature but also more ominously to the way he will use someone he cares about as bait to lure a psychopath almost without realising the moral implications of his actions. In many ways, this is a key concept of the film – those small steps that a good person may take that slowly but surely lead to evil. Just like the saying goes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. It is a testament to Nicholson’s beautifully judged performance, however, and Penn’s humanistic, non-judgmental approach to the material that Jerry always remains sympathetic and understandable even as we realise what he intends to do. Admittedly, none of the other characters are presented with as much depth as the central character but the rest of the cast still give it their all; in fact, it is the overwhelming sense of grief and loss, of shattered lives and deadened emotions, that comes from the assorted people Jerry encounters that drives the entire film and adds greatly to our own understanding of Jerry’s obsessive need to vindicate himself. Chris Menges’s magnificent and evocative cinematography too contributes enormously to the film’s bleak tone, capturing first the wintry gloom and desolation prevalent in the first half of the movie then subtly changing in the second, the colours becoming warmer and brighter, to suggest the (alas false) possibility of hope and salvation. The music too by Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt is often hauntingly sad and mournful. All things considered, it must be said that this adaptation of the book by Friedrich Durrenmatt will not appeal to everyone; Penn has imbued his story with a lyricism and spirituality uncommon in this kind of genre (i.e. detective story). In fact, those seeking a formulaic crime thriller had best look elsewhere as there are very few concessions made to the dictates of this genre. The film is not a thrill-a-minute entertainment; it does not set out to present the audience with a conventionally told murder mystery and then comfortably resolve itself with a neat conclusion. Quite the opposite, in fact. The film’s ambiguous ending may confuse and/or infuriate some viewers but for this reviewer, it is perfectly in keeping with the film’s desolate and strangely unresolved atmosphere, this palpable sense of a world of lingering doubts and frustrated intentions, an inexorable limbo of deaths unavenged and lives unfulfilled. The Pledge is indeed suspenseful and disturbing but not for the reasons one might think; rather it offers a melancholic, compelling and profoundly moving account of a good man attempting to right a wrong but ultimately finding himself consumed by his own inner demons. Highly recommended.
The film is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 and the quality of the transfer is outstanding. As you would expect from such a recent film, there is virtually no print damage (aside from the very rare appearance of white specks) and the detail of the image itself is excellent. There is little grain, no sign of any artefacting and the bare minimum of edge enhancement. The muted colours of the film are vividly and beautifully rendered here, flesh tones look realistic, shadow detail is very good and the black level is spot-on. An excellent effort.
Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, the soundtrack is equally impressive, offering a subtle but enveloping aural experience, not too surprising given the mostly dialogue-driven nature of the film itself. As a result, the rear speakers are used sparingly, mainly for ambient effects although the occasional scene like the one at the turkey farm will give all five speakers a decent workout. The film is mostly confined to the front soundstage – dialogue is crystal clear and hiss-free - but the occasional surprise gunshot should bring the subwoofer to life. The music score is also nicely presented on this exceptional soundtrack.
The film is presented on 34 chapters whilst the disc itself contains static menus accompanied by music from the film. Disappointingly, the only extras included are a cast and crew listing and the theatrical trailer (in anamorphic widescreen). [By the way, the DVD is enclosed in one of Warner’s standard (lousy) snapper cases.]
The extras are pathetic but the DVD transfer itself is impeccable. The Pledge is not for all tastes, indeed it was a box office failure when released in cinemas, however, it confirms both Penn’s steady growth as a filmmaker of substance and Nicholson’s extraordinary acting talent when given the proper role. It, therefore, remains a must-see for those who appreciate bold, unconventional storytelling and superlative acting.