The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard, the first two films Sean Penn directed, received mixed-to-favorable reviews. More importantly, they showed the promise of artistry. In The Pledge, a blue-collar murder mystery, Penn’s talent as a director comes into full bloom.
Jack Nicholson stars as a retiring police detective who, on his last day on the job, makes a pledge to personally find the killer of a little girl. Nicholson works hard to keep his promise, following up on every lead, questioning every too-tidy conclusion.
Nicholson’s character takes his pledge very seriously. Although he’s retired, he spends all his waking hours trying to find a pattern to the killer’s modus operandi. At some point, he becomes obsessed, sinking his own wealth and freedom into his private investigation.
Only So Much Fishing
The pace of the film follows a conventional mystery, revealing clues about the killer, slowly and steadily. But the film is not just about the murder mystery. It’s also about Nicholson’s obsession with this case.
His pledge to the parents of the girl is only one of his motives, and a relatively unimportant one at that. His professional pride has something to do with it. His need for closure also factors in. But Nicholson’s hero has something more pathetic underneath — the need to stay relevant after retirement.
Being a senior detective gives a man honor, importance, status, and respect. You can’t just flip a switch and ask him to give all that up. There’s only so much fishing you can do before you need to feel powerful, needed, and important again. That cry for relevance is what is really at the heart of The Pledge.
Praise for Penn and Nicholson
Nicholson brings a depth and pathos to the screen that he never has before. He has a certain humility that is almost always lacking his characters. Nicholson is usually extroverted and macho. But in The Pledge, he shows a fear and weakness that is endearing, scary, and sympathetic.
Penn brings a sensitive eye and a willingness to try some visually risky photography. An unforgettable, almost surreal scene inside a giant commercial chicken breeding facility is somehow an emotional match for the murder of a child. Thrice-layered images and blurred moving patterns call to mind the abstract works of Stan Brakhage. Penn, unafraid, strategically uses visuals that hack directors don’t even know how to approach.
And yet, on another level, The Pledge is merely a conventional mystery with a retiring cop. Unfortunately, I think this is the level from which most people saw the film. Unless you’re ready for art, The Pledge may be a disappointment.
Rent this movie, but look past the conventional plot. Look at the photography and look into Nicholson’s soul. See the sad human condition Penn and Nicholson present and learn from it. Do this or don’t bother with it at all.