Director: Sean Penn
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Aaron Eckhart, Sam Shepard, Mickey Rourke, Benicio Del Toro, Helen Mirren
MPAA Rating: (for strong violence and language)
Running Time: 2:04
Release Date: 1/19/01
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Review by Mark Dujsik
After years of over-the-top performances, it is difficult to remember Jack Nicholson as a serious, subtle actor. In Sean Pennís new film The Pledge, Jack the character actor is back, and itís been well worth the wait. First, I cannot believe how old he looks now. It has only been four years since his performance in As Good As It Gets, but in The Pledge, his face is really starting to show some wear. I do not say this in any demeaning way but instead mean it as a sincere compliment. Either he has been hiding this look, or he has grown into it. Either way, it shows a lot of character for him to present himself in this manner. In Nicholsonís face, we see the difficulty that years of police work must have brought to Detective Jerry Black.
At the start of the film, Black is on his last day of the job until retirement. When the news breaks that a young girlís body has been found, Black leaves his retirement party to go to the scene. Because of the local officersí inability to report the murder to the girlís parents, Black goes to deliver the shattering news. The mother of the girl makes Black promise on his eternal soul to find the killer of her daughter. This is the pledge of the title.
Afterwards, a mentally-challenged Native American (played by the very busy Benicio Del Toro) is brought in for questioning, and after a aggressive interview by another detective (Aaron Eckhart), he confesses. Black is obviously uncomfortable with the line of questioning, and after the suspect shoots himself, everyone but Black believes the case is closed. After he retires, Black continues the investigation, and discovers the young girl had a friend called "the Wizard." He then happens upon another unsolved case very similar to the one he investigated which begins an obsession to capture the killer.
Blackís obsession leads him to do some unbelievably eccentric and sometimes extremely risky things. This man is very dangerous to those around him because of his obsession, but Nicholson makes him a very sympathetic character. Sean Penn is obviously an actorís director, and the proof is not just in Nicholsonís performance. This cast is superb. It includes everyone Iíve mentioned above and the likes of Helen Mirren, Robin Wright Penn, Mickey Rourke, Sam Shepard, and even Vanessa Redgrave. I donít know how he was able to assemble this cast, but the result is a film without a single poor performance. However, there is a fault to Pennís abilities as a director. Whenever he switches his attention away from the characters, he falters. This is a very minor complaint for this movie, because the characters here are always in the spotlight.
I do have a significant criticism, though, and it lies in the police-procedural aspect of the film. I felt this element was necessary in the movieís opening scenes, but once the film travels into the more intriguing areas of character study, the procedural bogs down the fascinating characters. Near the end of the film, this flaw is apparent. The conclusion of the procedural element of the movie is very satisfying on an ironic level, but because we had been presented with the technical components of the story, it feels like a cheat. The film should have either toned down the procedural factor or given it a satisfying close (I am reminded of and highly recommend a 1997 Norwegian film entitled Insomnia which successfully combined character study and police procedural to create a haunting portrait of a manís guilty descent).
I admire the film for being a character study instead of a basic, clichť-ridden police thriller. Jack Nicholsonís performance is one of his best, and the supporting cast is outstanding. I hope Sean Penn continues to act in films; he is one of my personal favorites. However, if he continues to make thoughtful films like The Pledge on the side, Iíll be very happy.
Copyright © 2001 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.