THE PLEDGE Fails To Keep Promise
In The Pledge, Jack Nicholson plumbs the depths of the human psyche to deliver one of his strongest performances. Playing a homicide detective who refuses to let go of a case even after retirement, this veteran actor projects such genuine emotional suffering I had to remind myself it was only a role in a movie. Too bad the rest of the film fails to match Nicholson’s fine work. An obsessive journey into madness may be a compelling theme, but it’s not something I want to watch on the big screen --- unless the director moves the story along with a pace capturing my attention throughout, like Roman Polanski did with Repulsion.
Regrettably, as directed by Sean Penn, The Pledge features little of the visual excitement included in The Crossing Guard, his previous directorial outing (which also starred Nicholson). Pretentious camera shots --- such as superimposing birds in flight over faces and showing close-ups of ticking clocks --- receive more attention than plot in this character-driven drama. Only one scene reveals the artistry Penn is capable of as a filmmaker. When Jerry Black (Nicholson) tells a mother and father their young daughter has been murdered, not a word is heard. Instead, the entire screen is filled with turkey chicks surrounding three people in a stunning tableau of sadness.
Based on the novel by Friedrich Duerrenmatt, Penn’s latest offering oozes depression and hopelessness as it follows a retired detective in his efforts to solve the murder of an eight-year-old girl. To the victim’s mother (Patricia Clarkson), Black swears "on his salvation" that he will bring the evil one to justice. When a mentally challenged Indian (Benicio Del Toro, who seems to be everywhere lately) is cajoled into confessing he killed the youngster, everyone else considers the case closed. But the tenacious Black continues to investigate on his own. Brooding about the murder and others similar to it, he even sets a dangerous trap --- one that could ruin any chance of a new life for him with two people he has come to care a great deal about --- a single mother (Robin Wright Penn) and her daughter (Pauline Roberts). When Nicholson reads Thumbelina to Roberts at bedtime, his soft voice expresses convincing tenderness towards the little girl, and this makes his character’s later behavior seem quite unreasonable.
"I like the idea of the story being about fate, not so much about logic," Penn admits. Here lies the film’s major problem. There’s not much logic in many of Black’s actions or in what he neglects to do. He finds important clues, then doesn’t follow-up on them. He talks with the mother of a likely suspect but never interviews her son. After discovering objects similar to those drawn by the murdered child on display in a shop, he just ignores them. Clearly, this man is no Sherlock Holmes --- or Columbo, for that matter.
Still, whether muttering to himself or showing concern for a young child, three-time Oscar-winner Nicholson (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets) is the main reason to see this movie. He does get able support, however, from other cast members. Aaron Eckhart (Erin Brockovich) stirs things up as an ambitious detective who calls Black "a clown and a drunk." Helen Mirren (Teaching Mrs. Tingle) and Vanessa Redgrave (Girl, Interrupted) appear as magnificent as ever in important cameos. Mirren is an inquisitive psychiatrist --- Redgrave, a bereaved grandmother. But Sam Shepard (All the Pretty Horses) seems wasted in his one or two scenes as an "everyman" type of boss.
More a retirement crisis study than a murder mystery, The Pledge shows what can happen when a misguided person crosses the line in order to give purpose and meaning to his life. I just have one question for its filmmakers. Which is more intriguing --- a murder mystery or a retirement crisis? Case closed.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "R" for strong violence and language.)