by Greg Muskewitz
For awhile during The Pledge, it almost seemed as if it were hinting that 2001 may be a good year, that the quality of good, and closer to great films should be higher in quantity, and that we won't have to fear what many have deemed as "the death of cinema." For as sweeping and engulfing as The Pledge had been building towards, it is such a disappointment when it loses a hold of its own reality and becomes plainly stupid in addition to it growing supererogatory.Directed by Sean Penn, he is sure to bring names to the movie, including Jack Nicholson, Aaron Eckhart, Sam Shepard, Helen Mirren, Patricia Clarkson, Vanessa Redgrave, Benicio Del Toro, Harry Dean Stanton, Mickey Rourke, and of course, his wife Robin Wright Penn. And as scrumptious as this enumeration of names may sound, most, if not all but three of them, are around for but one brief scene each. Nicholson is Jerry Black, an about-to-be retired homicide detective. On the eve of that retirement, there is a juvenile homicide, in which he decides to get involved with.
"I really wanted to like this."
The problem is solved very speedily when a young boy witnesses an Indian (Del Toro) leaving the scene of the murder. They get a confession, and before they can completely lock him up, he commits suicide with one of the officer's guns. (After he shoots himself in the head, Nicholson picks something out of the wall, only for one of the officer's to ask, "What's that? A bullet?"/ "His tooth") But Jerry isn't convinced by this, having pledged the salvation of his soul to the deceased 8-year-old girl's parents, that he would find the culprit. However, the retirement is official, and the case is closed, so Jerry begins some snooping of his own on the side, and it comes as no surprise when he starts to find a trend in the statewide area. Unfortunately for him, he can't get his old teammates to seriously look into it.
He buys a house and gas station not too far away, and in the area meets a chip-toothed waitress (Wright Penn) and her 8-year-old daughter who fits the description of the girls who were killed. Jerry takes to them, and as a kind of look out, watches over.
Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski adapt the novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and without having read it, I don't know if the supernatural feel that the movie had, came along with the adaptation, was something they added, or if it was just me picking up on something that wasn't there, but it seems like a sound idea considering the religious overtones and lore that Penn incorporates, and then the inexplicable intuition which grants Jerry the premonition that it was not in fact the Indian. That supernatural feel was minimal and underplayed, and after a bit, it just evaporated.
While the plot was thickening, and the story became more interesting and involving, one couldn't help but wonder what Jerry's real intention for the little girl, Krissy, was. When they first meet in the restaurant, he makes a couple comments to her, and as if warned by her mother not to talk to strangers, she alerts her mom only to be reassured that Jerry is fine. But later on, and several times, that doesn't prevent her from talking to other shady characters who plottingly turn up to rouse our suspicions. Then, as the awareness that this guy is either, or is about to be "interested" in her, although constantly keeping Krissy at close watch, Jerry buys her the type of dress the other girls were found in, sets her out to be noticed, and practically uses her as bait to find this guy. Distressingly, and disturbingly, that ambiguous trait never confirms nor denies what Jerry is really trying to do. So once Krissy is approached by this man, and a meeting is set up, Jerry involves the police for back up, but from that point on, The Pledge becomes outright ridiculous. The way the police acted to him, the way they left her in danger, and the way they notified the girl's mother was furthering the risk of harm to any of them. The ending leaves everything cataleptic and scatological.
Beginning with the atmospheric and creepy start, The Pledge easily indulges the audience into trying to solve this sucker. It almost becomes entrancing in a defenseless way, and the way the plot twists and turns and keeps you on your toes, is exciting. The movie rides rough, and it works for its benefit. Only when the needle falls in the groove, during some heavy-plotting, a romantic interlude, etc., and then fully at the end, does it them scratch and split what was flowing so comfortably. To hold it like a judged sports competition, the unconvincing and befuddling ending ruins it. Why, where all along Jerry had at least been on top of everything and decently nimble, does he suddenly become a "drunk and a clown?" Obviously where his co-workers are getting this, it is incorrect because we are privy to other dramatic ironies and plot points, so once Eckhart states this, why does Jerry suddenly becomes it?
There are other seeping plot holes --for example, the likelihood that Jerry could just prance around schools randomly talking to students, visiting people for interviews, getting files from other police departments, all after already being officially retired-- that make some questionable developments. Too many developments cease while questions are still being raised, like how serious the romance was, and The Pledge loses itself among that. For all the suspicion it emits, our beliefs and questions are unrequited and abandoned, and those answers we draw ourselves are not satisfactory. And as straight and unwavering as it is played until the end (and the beyond), the fake-out scene is a cozening subterfuge, albeit temporarily chilling and freaky.
As I felt with Indian Runner, Penn doesn't assuredly direct, at least not with his actors. For most of them, in this more than Indian Runner, he doesn't give any of them the chance to do anything. Nicholson, absent from the screen since As Good as It Gets, I believe, is in top form. He does not necessarily look good, but his performance comes across pretty well up until the end. Wright Penn is too lost in the flurry of things, and while Shepard contains a certain creepiness about him, the only other actress who is given the chance to briefly shine was Mirren. Instead, Penn more adeptly handles exterior compositions, whether it be hovering shots over the lake, or still takes from across it. There is one composition in particular where Jerry is in the boat, and floating above the tranquil water is a faint-colored, but distinct rainbow. For a moment the shot grabs your breath in terms of beauty, but then skepticism takes over and one wonders that in this day and age if it was just placed there via computer.
There was quite a bit of The Pledge that I really enjoyed, but the hole it dug itself into turned to quicksand, so by the end it was pile-driving itself back into the ground, repeatedly, like a turntable needle bouncing and skipping unrelentingly, and right in the chorus of the song where you thought you were getting into it most.Final Verdict: C+.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=4785&reviewer=172
originally posted: 01/18/01 09:51:12