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USA 2001
Directed by
Sean Penn
124 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

The Pledge

Synopsis: On the day that homicide detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) is to retire a young girl is brutally murdered. Jerry is left to break the news to the distraught mother, who insists that Jerry promise 'on his soul's salvation' that he find the murderer. The case appears to be quickly closed when the apparent killer (Benicio Del Toro) is found but Jerry is not convinced. Against the advice and wishes of his colleagues, Jerry pursues the matter and gradually forms a close bond with local waitress Lori (Robin Wright Penn) whose little girl is potentially another victim. But is Jerry on the right track or is he simply pursuing a phantom? .

It's been a while since Jack Nicholson has made a film and at 65, overweight and going bald he turns in a compelling and uncharacteristically understated performance. Combine that with a gripping yet thoughtful story, adapted by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson Kromolowski from a novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and well-realised by Penn's measured direction supported by fine photography by Chris Menges and you have a substantial film.

Although The Pledge in essence adheres to the parameters of the Hollywood thriller Penn chooses not to accentuate the adrenaline-pumping thrills of the chase but rather to concentrate on the central character and his relationship with the world around him. And in the best tradition of independent cinema that character is a far-from glamorous figure and the milieu is that of the margins of mainstream society (here the Nevada backwoods). One of the additional pleasures of the film is the casting. Alongside Nicholson are some of the iconic faces from 1980s independent productions - Sam Shepard, Harry Dean Stanton and Mickey Rourke - along with Patricia Clarkson as a grieving mother and Robin Wright Penn who does a solid job of playing a snaggle-toothed working class gal. They only have small roles but they all add depth to what is going on here.

Penn, both as an actor and a director, with atypical appetite for the tragic aspects of life and, more difficultly, less commercially attractive projects straddles the two worlds of American cinema - entertainment and art. He has previously directed Nicholson in The Crossing Guard (1955), a film which is thematically not dissimilar to this. The result of that effort, no box office hit, was OK but this time he has really refined his craft, a typically American tendency to overstatement notwithstanding (a notable example being the scene when Jerry bursts into the church where he suspects the worst has occured). My only significant reservation is that Jerry too suddenly deteriorates mentally in the film's late stages and that this development needed to be handled more cumulatively in order to convince (a visit to a shrink played by Helen Mirren, albeit somewhat incongruous, is a step in the right direction but not a big enough one).

Penn's film may not receive the appreciation it deserves on first release but it is his best work to date and should stand the test of time. It's slow and melancholy, if not downright morbid and if you like this particular style of film-making you shouldn't miss the opportunity to see it writ large.




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