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Jack Nicholson, Benicio Del Toro, Aaron
Eckhart, Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, Robin Wright Penn, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, Sam
What is this, the list of courtside-seat ticket holders at a recent L.A.
Lakers games? No, its the cast of Sean Penns The Pledge, a mood-deadening study of what happens
when a mans attempt to keep his word turns into a pursuit of his own sanity. Despite
its intimate scope and focus on the everyday lives of anonymous Americans, The Pledge, with its conga line of famous faces,
feels like a Gloomy Gus version of Its A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. By the
time Harry Dean Stanton turns up to deliver all of five lines as a gas-station attendant,
youre thinking Penn wont be happy until Phil Silvers swoops in on a biplane.
Nicholson plays Jerry Black, a Reno homicide investigator who skips out on his own retirement party to cover one last crime scene. The rape-murder victim is a little girl, and when Nicholson visits her parents to break the news, the mother forces him to vowon your souls salvationto bring the killer to justice. Blacks young colleague (Eckhart) extracts a fishy confession from a mentally defective suspect (Del Toro), and the case is officially closed, but little details about it continue to nag at Black even after hes cleaned out his desk. His former colleagues wont listen to himthey think he just cant let go of his joband so working on his own he gathers evidence showing that a serial killer may be loose in the mountains of Nevada. Buying a gas station located within the killers stomping grounds, he turns it into an aerie from which he keeps an eye on the areas inhabitants. His search brings him into contact with Lori (Ms. Penn), a single mother whose little girl fits the profile of the previous victims, and when Black sets up house with mother and daughter, its a situation that should bring out the best in any man. But he cant forget the promise he once made, and eventually he becomes so consumed by his quest that hes willing to do anything to lure the killer out.
On the most literal level Jerry Black really is just a guy who's not ready for pasture, but Penn seems uninterested in exploring the emotional meaning of his dilemma. The pledge itself comes off like a plot convenience because we never understand why this seasoned investigator, whos probably encountered every form of survivors grief imaginable, would make such a promise in the first place. Does the fact that the mother makes him swear over a cross mean something special to him? Is his promise only the excuse that his subconscious needs in order to justify his one-man investigation? We never find out because the movie, a false exercise in ambiguity, deliberately muddies these issues, and instead keeps teasing us with the possibility of a showdown with the killer. Its bad enough that future generations will probably regard our cultures fixation on serial killers with a mixture of wonder and scorn, but in the meantime were forced to sit through yet more flash shots of mangled bodies, tiresome crime-scene shop-talk, and tedious red herrings. If Penn and his screenwriters really wanted to make a character study, why did they cast it in the mold of a garden-variety serial killer flick?
The penitential heaviness that occasionally afflicts Penns acting has thoroughly infected his work as a director, and The Pledge is so logy and doom-laden that watching it feels like a hike through waist-deep snow. Incapable of laying bare his protagonists mental landscape, Penn dwells on external bits of business so inarticulate that they come across like cinematic grunts: a malfunctioning credit card machine, a cigarette thats stubbed out in an orange peel. Cinematographer Chris Menges (Local Hero, The Boxer) has done some lovely work over the years, but here he indulges in arty rhinestonesmostly a lot of out-of-focus and slow-motion shotsthat lost their shine in the Sixties.
Nicholsons performance is stripped of any vanityhes not afraid to let the camera rest on his sagging featuresbut he doesnt come close to conveying the contours of Blacks obsession. This man who once held audiences in the palm of his hand lost the ability to draw us to him a long, long time ago, and in scenes such as the one where Black reads Thumbelina to Loris daughter, he throws away his chances to make us forget the aging roue that haunts the Oscars every year. Robin Wright Penn comes off best of the featured players: Lori, with her chipped front tooth and nicked-up features, is a woman weve crossed paths with in the supermarket a thousand times. But the movies one moment of genuine feeling comes through in a brief scene with Mickey Rourke. When Rourke, as a grieving father, unexpectedly bursts into tears, it knocks The Pledge off its uncommitted axis, and in a flash you remember all the good that a little humanity can do for a movie.
- Tom Block