Lawrence Russell

The Pledge (2001) dir. Sean Penn writ. Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson Kromolowski (based on the novel by Fredrich Durrenmatt) cine. Chris Menges edt. Jay Cassidy star. Jack Nicholson (Det. Jerry Black), Robin Penn Wright (Lori), Aaron Eckhart (Det. Stan Krolak), Sam Shepard (Det. Eric Pollack), Benicio del Toro (Toby Jay Wadenah), Helen Mirren (Doctor), Patrica Clarkson (Mrs. Larson, Ginny's mother), Mickey Rourke (Jim Olstand), Vanessa Redgrave (Annalise Hansen), Pauline Roberts (Chrissy) et. al.

Warner Bros

If you fail to experience a deep hungering fear when watching this film, then you must be a pedophile like the mysterious antagonist The Wizard... or if you remain confused by the ironic, elliptic ending, then you must be a TV cop-show moron... or if you actually like the bursts of visual symbolism and raw naturalism that cloak this film in a moody melancholy of obsession and madness, then you must be an artsy-fartsy flake. Amen.

This is the talk on the street and on the Net about The Pledge, the latest film by that enfant terrible Sean Penn -- he who dared to smoke a cigarette during his 60 Minutes interview -- who used to drink with Charles Bukowski and shoot pool with Madonna... or was that Kiefer Sutherland? No matter. There's something very uncool and retro about Penn, so how could he possibly make a good movie?

An old pisstank stands hallucinating in front of a dilapidated gas station. He sees crows flying in a pale blue sky, a few at first, then entire flocks, forming and dissolving like layers of memory. Who is he? The opening credits roll. A young snow-mobiler pulls up on the edge of a winter forest, sees a long-haired savage staggering through the snow, swinging a chain. Could be an animal leg-hold trap. The savage emits strange animal sounds, gets into a dirty old pickup, roars off. The young snow-mobiler stands listening, as if sensing something strange in the forest. He staggers through the snow to investigate... comes upon the ravaged body of a young blond girl in red. He pukes -- wouldn't you?

Cut To: Detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) getting ready for his retirement party in a tacky club somewhere in downtown Reno, Nevada. Perhaps you recognize him as the old pisstank from the opening sequence. Perhaps you're thinking, is Jack going to collapse into self-parody? Jack Nicholson in The PledgeIt doesn't happen. Nicholson is absorbed into his role completely, making this one of his finest performances. News of the little girl's murder comes right after Det. Black gets his present (a fishing trip to Cabo) and the dancing has begun. Leave his own party before the clock hits midnight and he's no longer a cop? You bet. He too senses something sinister deep in the mountain forest... or perhaps it's within himself.

Despite the documentary naturalism of the action and the formulaic cop drama progression of the narrative, The Pledge soon moves into psychology and the mystical transformation of the self. Who really understands sex and death, let alone the hunger of the pedophile? The story is a paradigm rather than a plot, and Black's investigation becomes a pathology rather than a pursuit.

Black bears the bad news to the parents of the murdered child, the Larsens. You see them in a turkey litter, surrounded by a thousand of these dumb creatures as they forage aimlessly in the artificial light. The view is the long view, so dialogue becomes irrelevant. You wait, you anticipate. In a sense, you're witnessing another murder as the ugly Truth chooses yet another victim. Mrs. Larsen collapses screaming at the feet of Black as her husband reels in disbelief. Ginny is dead -- and who knows why?

Mrs. Larsen extracts a "pledge" from Black to find her daughter's killer on his "soul's salvation"... despite his retirement and cop discipline. As he clutches the cross she's placed in his hands, you think maybe he's just humoring her, and when a local deviant Toby Jay Wadenah (Benicio del Toro) is arrested and confesses, Black appears to be off the hook. You recognize Wadenah as the savage creature seen by the snow-mobiler, and when details of his previous sexual offences and mental condition emerge, it seems to be case closed. Black's associates certainly believe Wadenah is guilty -- he's an Indian with a record and a history of mental illness... and after he "confesses", he uses his interrogator's gun to shoot himself.

Black actually goes to the airport to catch his flight to Cabo, start his retirement... but the horror of the crime and his "pledge" continues to nag him. He for one doesn't believe Wadenah's confession, and begins an investigation of his own. Checking the immediate environs for similar pedophiliac murders, he soon uncovers a m.o. -- the victims were eight or nine years old, blond, were wearing red. The investigation here follows the standard series of cameo interviews: the grandmother of Ginny Larsen, a police lieutenant in another small town, a classmate of Ginny, a female psychological profiler (Helen Mirren), a traumatized father (Mickey Rourke) of another victim... even a return to his old office to pitch his theory to his old boss Pollack and the smug Det. Krolak is typical of the genre. Both men think Black is crazy... and who knows? Maybe they're right.

However, it's good old fashioned detective work rather than psychic dowsing that really helps Black build a visual and territorial profile of the killer he believes is still out there and who will kill again. Ginny, he discovers, drew a picture of her killer as a friendly giant called "The Wizard". Also, the child murders occurred in a triangle of local townships, which suggests the killer is working within a geographic Trinity. So what does Black do? He goes "fishing" in the triangle, formulates a plan of entrapment.

This plan is both conscious and unconscious, sociological and metaphysical. He buys a gas station near a lake in the mountains, the ideal location to vett possible suspects. The place is a dump, its time almost done, just like himself. Stress? He left it behind in Reno, didn't he? In the local tavern he meets a single mom, Lori (Robin Penn-Wright), soon drifts into a romance when he saves her from her abusive ex. She has pretty little girl too, eight years old....

Religious fundamentalism and insanity seem to go together like scotch and water. Which isn't to say that Penn's film is an all-out attack on religion, free-market splinter versions or otherwise, yet... you wonder. Worship is a response to stress, the extremes of existence. Fundamentalism always reduces the mystery of existence to a simplicity of possession and fawning contrition. Black's search for the killer is like a yearning to meet the Devil, be he God or God's antagonist. Is there anything more cruel and senseless than the sex murder of a young child? Mrs. Larsen accepts Ginny's murder as God's work, but why did He call her? As the grandmother says, "How could God be so greedy?" So you come to understand that when Black accepts the burden of "the pledge", he also assumes the Guilt.

Is this the old bogey of Original Sin or the manic depression of the alcoholic? To be fair, Nicholson's character only appears to be alcoholic after the fact, even if the vibe fits the circumstances.

The ending is arcane, brilliant in its symbolism and certainly daring within the Hollywood context. You won't be asleep when it comes.

Yet many will say that The Pledge moves too slowly in places, especially in the middle stanzas. Some will say the action stays too much within the point-of-view of Nicholson's role, that the actor overpowers the character. Even the cameos will be criticized for this, that pantheon of the recently great -- Vanessa Redgrave, Harry Dean Stanton, Mickey Rourke... and maybe the latter is a little less than convincing in his anguish.

Everything about this film is familiar -- the story is a metaphysical take on Little Red Riding Hood, the narrative a typical cop gun drama, the scenes a parade of stock interviews, the faces of the actors portraits in deja vu, etc -- yet the feel is completely unfamiliar. Within this peculiar hybrid of European existentialism (Fredrich Durrenmatt) and American Gothic, Sean Penn has produced something that looks like a masterpiece.

© LR 1/2001


reviews | e-mail LR | culture court

Film Court | copyright 2001 | Lawrence Russell