The Pledge

The H-Bomb: Love him or loath him, we all can agree Sean Penn is a damn terrific actor. However, he’s also a force to be reckoned with behind the camera, as well. His best known film to date as a director is “Into the Wild”. But, he did direct three little seen films before that one, and it’s his third, “The Pledge”, that is my personal favorite of his.

It’s the story of Nevada Homicide Detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson), who is working his final day on the job before retiring when the film begins. Jerry is well liked and is considered a great cop by his colleagues who throw him a lavish retirement party on his last night. However, when it’s reported that a young girl with blonde hair has been murdered, Jerry volunteers himself for the case.

Holding a crude wooden cross made by the murdered girl, Jerry swears to her mother (Patricia Clarkson) that he will find the killer. This seems easy since the prime suspect, a mentally challenged Native American (an unrecognizable Benicio Del Toro) is taken into custody immediately, confesses to the murder, and promptly commits suicide.

Seems open and shut. But Jerry has a feeling that the real culprit is in fact a serial killer who has murdered other young girls in the area. As a retiree, he uses his abundant spare time to obsess about the case, and when he meets a vulnerable single mother (Robin Wright) with  a young daughter matching the description of the other victims, he sees an opportunity to set a trap for the murderer he believes is on the loose.

On the surface, this all sounds like your typical dogged-cop-chasing-killer type psychological thriller, and for the first half hour or  so, seems to play out that way, but it really isn’t. Once the second act kicks in, Penn lets things slow down. Built much more on nuance and mood than straight out thrills, though the movie does have those, we simply observe Jerry doing what seem to be mundane things, like ingratiate himself with the mother and daughter, buy and operate an old rural gas station, but underneath the surface, we get the sense that his mind is focused on one thing and one thing only, catching the psycho that he’s convinced himself is still out there.

Unlike another film reviewed for the Bin  (“The Alphabet Killer”-grrrr), “The Pledge” actually does realistically depict a man’s descent into madness through obsession. It’s believable, because unlike “The Alphabet Killer” (grrrr), where we’re just told about it at the beginning of the movie, here we see Jerry’s deterioration happen gradually throughout the whole film. At first he seems like a dedicated cop simply doing his job, but as events unfold, as his behavior becomes more erratic and bizarre, as his drinking becomes out of control, and as he fixates on details the dead girls had in common that may or may not be coincidence, it becomes obvious that he’s a man obsessed to the point of being dangerous.

There’s a very telling scene midway through the film where Jerry consults a shrink (Helen Mirren), where she notices that he’s chain smoking, having trouble remembering the victim’s name, and is having difficulty finishing his thoughts, that give us a clear picture that this case is taking a bigger toll on this guy than he realizes.

Unlike “The Alphabet Killer” (grrrr), we’re never sure until the end whether Jerry’s serial killer theory is right, or if it’s all just in his mind. This all leads to an ending that is ironic and tragic. While many felt cheated by this ending, I found it brilliant and quite unexpected. (Come on, movie going public, did you really want another ending where the cop just shoots the killer dead?)

Penn’s direction is stylish without being distracting (or clichéd), showing a sharp eye for detail, and the cast reads like a who’s who list of Hollywood, anchored by a terrific, mature performance by Nicholson. This failed at the Box Office mainly because it was falsely marketed as an edge of your seat thriller, when it is in fact a deliberately paced character study that is very much worth a rental.

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