The Pledge
review by Gregory Avery, 2 February 2001

At the beginning of The Pledge, Reno police detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) is being given a retirement party by his friends in the department when a call comes in and several of his colleagues have to leave the festivities. Jerry volunteers to come along, but is told he doesn't have to. "Ahhh, I've still got six more hours...," he replies.

In the snowy mountains outside of town, they find the remains of a young girl who has been so badly mutilated that the officers who are already there can't figure out how they are going to convey to the news to the dead girl's parents. Jerry, who has had some experience in these matters, volunteers to perform the duty, but when he does so, the response by the girl's parents (Michael O'Keefe and Patricia Clarkson) affects him to the point where he assures them, committedly, that he will see to it that whoever did this terrible crime will be brought to justice.

Almost immediately afterward, a younger detective, Stan (Aaron Eckhart, back giving his Grade-A, number-one louse performance), interrogates a suspect who was seen near where the murder was committed. Mentally handicapped (and played, in unnervingly accurate fashion, by Benicio Del Toro), Stan delivers a confession from him, but Jerry is not convinced. "No offense," Stan tells him, ."..but you're retired. You don't work here anymore."  Only Jerry turns up evidence of a second, then a third, child murder, all previously committed, similar, and all unsolved, and he understandably  finds his associates' eagerness to "close" the current case off-putting. He made a promise, Jerry tells his department chief (Sam Shepard), adding, "You're old enough to remember when that meant something."

Whether a subsequent comment by Stan -- "Get a life!" -- is meant to be directed at Jerry or not is left tantalizingly unclear. The odyssey that Jerry sets out upon shows us the little bits and moments that go towards only further tacking-down a determination such as the one Jerry has taken upon himself. The cavalier attitude of a cop (Costas Mandylor) in another town who confides that crime scene photos no longer affect him to any degree. A revelation, from the grandmother (Vanessa Redgrave, who is quietly and absolutely wonderful) of the most recent victim, about a story that was the girl's favorite -- "She loved Anderssen," the woman says, referring to the story's author, Hans Christian Anderssen. Then there's a moment when the father (Mickey Rourke) of another victim disassembles, showing his feelings nakedly about the murder, before quickly pulling himself back together.

Jerry even turns what should have been his inaugural retirement vacation, at a prime rural fishing spot, into a stakeout, buying a gas station located in the nexus of where the three killings occurred. There is even some measure of domestic tranquility with a local waitress, Lori (Robin Wright Penn), and her young daughter, Chrissy (Pauline Roberts), who turn out to be in need of some protection already. The way in which the film handles this unusual transition, which considerably extends the timeframe of the story,  is remarkable -- it could easily have shattered the picture's hold on us -- but the story, and Nicholson's performance, deepens instead, as we see how everything fits in with Jerry's consistent vigilance towards the person whom he is intent on capturing.

He suspects that a local man could be it -- played, in an obvious bit of casting, by Tom Noonan, who I had thought had left these kind of typecasting roles behind when he played his psycho-killer-to-end-all-psycho-killers in Last Action Hero. His character fits the profile that Jerry has assembled of the perpetrator, and he talks to Chrissy on more than one occasion. The picture shows, unnervingly, that the way Jerry talks to Chrissy is not all that different from the way the killer would, except that while we are thoroughly convinced that Jerry is good (and he is indeed a good person), there is no way that a young girl like Chrissy could distinguish whether she is being taken into the confidence of a demon or not.

This is your one opportunity, so far, to see Jack Nicholson reading a bedtime story to a child, but not to worry -- it is one of the most moving scenes in the picture. Sean Penn had previously directed Nicholson in The Crossing Guard -- another story about the death of a child and the profound, long-term effects of such a tragedy -- and he evidently has a good rapport with the actor. There are traces of the ironic, wolfish Nicholson on view, but these attributes take on a whole different purpose, here. As deeply thoughtful as the circles under his eyes and the low, soft timbre to his voice, Nicholson's portrayal of Jerry is both heroic and, as the film builds towards its conclusion, ultimately devastating. The film shows how people -- those around Jerry, those with whom he felt secure -- can be casually callous for inadvertent reasons, but they're still being callous nonetheless, and the effects are none the less for it. Should we always take people like Jerry seriously? Should we be too quick to judge? Some people don't, or can't, be totally understanding all the time, but the picture's conclusion shows the consequences of being too off-handed and quick-to-judge (and, I should add, not in a way that we would expect). The film presents its conclusion soberly, without sentiment, and it gives Nicholson a chance to, while not speaking and portraying Sophocles' words, to give a performance that is every bit as shattering as Oedipus Rex.

Directed by:
Sean Penn

Starring:
Jack Nicholson
Aaron Eckhart Benicio Del Toro
Sam Shepard
Vanessa Redgrave
Tom Noonan
Pauline Roberts
Robin Wright Penn
Harry Dean Stanton

Written by:
Jerzy Kromolowski
Mary Olson-Kromolowski

Rated:
R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
accompanying
parent or adult
guardian

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