Director Sean Penn and actor Jack Nicholson, who last collaborated in
the over-the-top THE CROSSING GUARD, surprise us this time with THE
PLEDGE, a picture of remarkable grace and subtlety. Taking a formula
story -- that of a recently retired cop who wants a closed murder case
reopened -- it changes the structure, the tone and the events to put
fresh spins on old themes.
THE PLEDGE focuses almost exclusively on Jack Nicholson as Detective
Jerry Black, although many fine actors show up to turn in nice cameos
and supporting parts. Chief among these are Robin Wright Penn, as a
scraggly haired, chipped tooth waitress, Helen Mirren, as a reluctantly
helpful psychiatrist and Patricia Clarkson, as a dead girl's mother who
extracts a pledge from Black to find the killer. The pledge is made on
a cross that the girl had constructed herself.
As the story begins, Black leaves his retirement party to help
investigate the rape and murder of a second grade girl. Later, much to
the consternation of his replacement, Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart), Black
insists that they've got the wrong man. This belief leads Black on a
statewide quest for what he thinks is a serial killer on the loose.
If the first part of the film is more standard issue with the obsessed
cop on the prowl for the perp, the second part is a change of pace, as
Black retires to a life of fishing. Or is he just lying in wait? Or is
it both? What is most unusual about the second half is that the script
by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski, based on Friedrich
Dürrenmatt's book, telegraphs where it is going yet maintains the
tension. And, when the story finally gets to the easily guessed
destination, the film avoids the most committed sin by screenwriters
everywhere -- the obsession with tying up all the loose ends. This, of
course, may drive anal-retentive viewers nuts, but it does provide for
great post-theater car conversations.
Still, what you will remember a week later isn't the ending. It will be
Nicholson's exceptional and atypically reserved performance. His
detective doesn't come from some overwrought method acting. Nicholson
searches deep down within himself and comes up with a character whose
furrowed brow says it all. Black is deeply scarred by the deaths. He
has internalized the pain of the victims and their families. This has
transformed him into a man driven as if by hidden demons. His worries
are made palpable through an intense but delicately nuanced performance
by Nicholson. It may not be his very best performance, but it sure is a
treat to observe.
THE PLEDGE runs 2:04. It is rated R for strong violence and language
and would be acceptable for older teenagers.
Copyright © 2001 Steve Rhodes