Pledge, The

Rated: R
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Helen Mirren

Sean Penn’s third directorial effort is a super somber piece starring one of his favorite actors, Jack Nicholson, as a retiring police detective who becomes obsessed with finding a serial child rapist/murderer. Nicholson’s performance is solid and wonderfully subdued but some of the biggest problems are with his character.

Nicholson plays Jerry Black, a no-nonsense detective who has but six hours left on the clock when word comes down that a young girl has been brutally murdered in rural Nevada. Breaking the news to the grief-stricken mother, Jerry swears a haunting oath to find the killer. A suspect is arrested but Jerry believes they have the wrong man. Then, even though he no longer has a job, he asks his superiors some leeway in staying on with the investigation, although he’s pretty much on his own and when he does come up with some evidence that the killer is still out there and ready to strike again sooner rather than later, no one believes him. That’s when he makes a big issue out of his pledge and his intent to keep his promise.

From there, Jerry moves to an area that is seemingly the crossroads to where he’s placed the killer’s victims. He buys an old gas station/convenience store which is the perfect vantage point to spot a suspect but rather than actively searching for the killer as you’d expect him to do, considering the sense of urgency provided by a psychologist (Helen Mirren), Jerry simply goes on about his life, fishing, having breakfast at the local diner and every now and then taking note of the type of car the killer might be driving. He rescues a woman, Lori (Robin Wright Penn) from her abusive husband then takes her under his wing along with her eight year old daughter Chrissy. Life gets better for Jerry. He has a small business and an instant family. For a man so supposedly obsessed with his pledge, you’d think Jerry would be doing a whole lot more than fishing and reading stories to the kid. Still, though in the back of his mind, you know he remembers what he’s there for, because almost subconsciously he sets up Chrissy to be the bait for the next murder. When Jerry snaps at the end, though, there hasn’t been enough of a buildup to make you believe that such a hardboiled detective would go that route. The year and a half spent with his so-called obsession was a mild one at best.

Dark is both subject and mood, Penn films the entire movie in gritty fashion. The locale is a snowy mountainous area of Nevada with a big lake yet there is no beauty to any of it even as the seasons change. Vanessa Redgrave, Bencio Del Toro, Mickey Rourke, Harry Dean Stanton and Sam Shepard have good small parts. But it’s obvious Penn was just calling in favors because there really was no point to such casting decisions and rather than being desirable, they’re simply distracting.. Exceptions: Rourke’s and Shepard’s characters. One bit that irked me: Redgrave’s utilization of a European accent to portray the grandmother of the murdered girl. Not needed! As for Del Toro’s performance – it was absolutely ludicrous. He plays a mentally handicapped man but when he’s first seen, he’s running from the scene of the murder, dashes into a pick-up truck and peels off. Next, he’s a suspect in police custody and being interrogated. He can hardly utter a sound, has no understanding of what is being said to him and he sits there with his eyes rolling back in his head the whole time. You can’t help but wonder how this guy managed to exist as a trapper, drive a truck or for that matter, even mangage to get a driver’s license. It just didn’t make any sense.

The story is based on a 1958 novel by Swiss author Friedrich Durrenmatt. Screenplay is by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski.

Lotta says The Pledge is an interesting but dour drama/thriller with more dourness than thrills. It’s easily about 20 minutes too long but sports a good cast with solid performances.

Reviewed 1/19/01