The Pledge (2001)

D: Sean Penn
S: Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn

The fourth adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt's novel brings the story to America, where director Sean Penn draws considerable power from excellent performances and a cumulative disinterest in narrative convention. On the day he is to retire, police detective Jack Nicholson (As Good as it Gets) becomes involved in a murder case. He makes a promise to the parents of the young girl who has been killed that he will find the person responsible, literally swearing his soul to the task. Though a suspect is immediately arrested and the case supposedly closed, Nicholson is not satisfied and begins to probe deeper. His suspicions are treated with disdain by his former colleagues, and when he asks for help from psychiatrist Helen Mirren, she asks him questions which cast doubt on his own sanity. Determined to fulfil his promise, he takes up residence in a nearby town which he feels may be the next target of what he believes to be a serial murderer. He befriends local woman Robin Wright Penn, whose pretty young daughter fits the profile of the victims. A relationship develops in which protecting the child may mean more than protecting the world from her would-be killer, but how far can you take a pledge and what will it cost?

The film explores the emotional and ethical boundaries of this situation, and explicitly links obsession, superstition, and madness. Run through with a storytelling motif involving Hans Christian Andersen, it frequently has the tone of a realistic nightmare, a sense that the story is often beyond the control of its central character (contrary to the 'rules' of Hollywood narrative) and may lead him to unexpected places. It actually gets more interesting as it goes, after a somewhat unsteady first act which is spared from terminal cliché only by the performances. Director Penn is canny enough to maintain a rudimentary generic hook, and in fact relies upon the audience's familiarity with the serial killer plot to keep casual viewers friendly. Thankfully, the film frequently chooses to step away from narrative mechanics though, signalling its departures with scenes involving animals (birds, fish, hedgehogs). It unwinds as if it is deconstructing both itself and the genre in general, and this polemical dimension proves an important part of Penn's armoury.

Topped by a precise and controlled performance from Nicholson, the film boasts a great supporting cast including Wright Penn, Mirren, Sam Shepard, Vanessa Redgrave, Harry Dean Stanton, Benicio Del Toro, Tom Noonan, and Mickey Rourke (many of whom appear for only a few minutes each). Aaron Eckhart (Erin Brockovich) has a larger but less vivid role as Nicholson's successor at work. Penn seems to be able to attract top of the line talent like this (with the help of casting director Don Phillips) and obviously makes them comfortable enough to allow nuanced performances from even single-scene appearances. The film is akin to a montage of brief but intense characterisations, none of which detract from the basic story or from Nicholson's later career-high turn in the lead.

The Pledge is a gripping adult drama which does not condescend to its audience. Elements of the plot and some of the character motivation rides a border between intriguing and preposterous, but Nicholson is so believable in the lead that he carries it off. There is a subtle ambiguity to his performance, an initial measure of control which slowly erodes by degrees gentle enough to allow the depths of the characterisation to emerge. This makes the finale all the more shocking, when his state of paralysis suggests an almost psychic link to the killer which leaves him hesitating between reality and fantasy, leading to the closing scene (which is also the opening) where he mutters and raves in a physical and metaphorical desert.

Considerably less cerebral and psychologically enthralling than The Sweet Hereafter but streets ahead of heavy-handed dross like In Dreams, the film tackles a difficult subject with some sensitivity. Penn makes good use of the natural environment to suggest changes in character, the passage of time, and transitive emotional states, yet he never gets bogged down in metaphors to the point where he loses touch with the audience. A solid director, Penn is no great cineaste yet, but The Pledge is a strong film in every respect and well worth a look, especially for Nicholson fans and admirers of indie cinema.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.