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Dustin Putman

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The Pledge (2001)
3 Stars

Directed by Sean Penn
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Pauline Roberts, Aaron Eckhart, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Patricia Clarkson, Benicio Del Toro, Tom Noonan, Sam Shepard, Harry Dean Stanton, Lois Smith, Mickey Rourke.
2001 – 124 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, profanity, and gore).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 27, 2001.

They say the first two months of every year is littered with the movie studios' unwanted children--those films that they have little to no faith in, and release at a time when they can exit quietly from theaters without being noticed. Each year, however, one movie does seem to come out that is a step above everything else. In 1999, it was Neil Jordan's vastly underrated "In Dreams," and in 2000, it was Curtis Hanson's underseen "Wonder Boys." Sean Penn's "The Pledge" is a film like those two, and in a few superficial ways, bears a slight resemblance to "In Dreams," a frightening, astonishingly original serial killer thriller (seek it out if you haven't seen it, by the way).

"The Pledge" opens like most police murder mysteries do, with the discovery of a mutilated body, and the immediate question of who committed such an atrocity. But there is a subtle difference here, because the film already had managed, by the opening ten minutes, to involve me so deeply that I didn't dare take my eyes off the screen and my mind off the story and characters until the end credits rolled. With the aid of Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski's tightly wound, multilayered screenplay, and Chris Menges' chilly, unforgettably beautiful cinematography, the movie miraculously seemed fresh, even while wading through early familiar territory. Beginning as the story of a murder investigation, it isn't long before the film's true, insulated aspirations emerge.

It is the final working day before dedicated homicide detective Jerry Black's (Jack Nicholson) retirement when a young boy discovers the bloody corpse of a seven-year-old girl lying in a snow-covered wooded area. Jack decides to accompany his eager, young replacement (Aaron Eckhart) to the crime scene, and later takes the duty of informing the child's parents. Promising the devastated mother (Patricia Clarkson) that he will find the person that did this to their little girl, Jerry becomes deeply embroiled in seeking out the truth, even after their biggest suspect, a mentally challenged Indian (Benicio Del Toro) who was seen at the scene of the crime, commits suicide while at the police station.

It seems that the deceased girl had made a buddy right before she died that she told her friends was called "The Wizard," a giant-like figure in a black car that gave her small porcelain porcupines as gifts. With two young girls murdered eight and three years ago within the same Nevada vicinity, both wearing red dresses and killed in a similar fashion, Jerry is convinced the killer will strike again soon. Buying a home/gas station off one of the main roads, Jerry prepares to, once and for all, find the culprit. His chances start to look up after meeting a distressed coffee shop waitress (Robin Wright Penn) whose eight-year-old daughter, Chrissy (Pauline Roberts), is given a porcupine while at a flea market.

"The Pledge" runs through the paces of a generic serial killer thriller in the first half, but it is far from ordinary. The movie doesn't even seem terribly interested in the identity of the killer, since Jerry more or less figures out who it is before the end. Instead, the nervy edginess that director Sean Penn provides stems from whether little Chrissy, a lovable child whom Jerry grows close to, will be the next victim. And more than even that, the film gradually transforms into a thoughtful, morose character study--one that concludes on such a tragic, unforeseen note, it has the power to leave you not only shaken, but deeply provoked into thinking about the movie as a complete whole. Every part, every scene, every red herring holds a clever purpose in distracting you for as long as possible while it sets up Jerry's desolate downfall.

In Jerry Black, Jack Nicholson has found a role that is every bit as memorable and stirring as that of Jack Torrance in 1980's "The Shining," even without nary a scene in which he turns evil and begins chasing people with an ax. Widely known for his offbeat charm and sinister eyebrows, Nicholson feels more human here--more flawed, yet caring--than he rarely has been captured on film. His Jerry is a warm, compassionate man that you can't help but sympathize with as his goal becomes a deep-seeded obsession that is putting his life and newfound relationships in danger.

Surrounding Nicholson are an array of exciting performers, many of which are little more than cameos, but all of which leave some sort of precise impression. Robin Wright Penn (1999's "Message in a Bottle"), equipped with an unattractive, dark haircut and a chipped front tooth, gives a courageous performance, both physically and internally, and newcomer Pauline Roberts, as her little daughter, Chrissy, is a natural young actress with a lot of charisma. Aaron Eckhart (2000's "Nurse Betty") is appropriately smarmy as the cop that replaces Jerry, and therefore sees himself as superior, while Patricia Clarkson (1998's "High Art") and Vanessa Redgrave (1999's "Girl, Interrupted"), as the deceased girl's mother and grandmother, respectively, offer up indelible, poignant turns. Finally, Benicio Del Toro (2000's "Traffic") literally disappears into his mentally challenged Native American character who is believed to be the murderer early on.

"The Pledge" is, on the one hand, about the oath a man takes so seriously it washes over his entire existence, but it is also about a person's terrifyingly subtle descent into madness when all that he ever lived for is taken away from him. A provocative morality tale, "The Pledge" is not only the first great motion picture of 2001 (and one that might even appear on my annual ten-best list), but also a film that exposes Sean Penn as being every bit as talented a director as he is an actor.

©2001 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman