As the holiday movie season sputters out, a new set of films are making their bid for box-office dollars. The Pledge (Warner Bros.), which opened Friday, received both widespread acclaim and open disdain from critics and moviegoers alike.
The Pledge marks the second time Jack Nicholson (As Good as it Gets) and sometimes-director Sean Penn (The Crossing Guard) have teamed together to create a semi-independent feature. The Pledge, brings Nicholson back to the big screen after a hiatus of several years. His last film, As Good As it Gets (Columbia TriStar), won Nicholson the Academy Award for Best Actor.
In the new movie Nicholson plays Jerry Black, a Nevada homicide detective on the verge of retirement. During his office’s farewell retirement party, an emergency call puts Jerry on the job one last time, as he investigates the brutal rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl. Jerry must perform the solemn duty of telling the little girl’s parents about the terrible tragedy. The detective confronts a broken family and eventually soothes the parents’ emotions by promising the girl’s bereaved mother that he will find the killer.
Jerry retires as planned but uses his newly acquired time to undertake an obsessive search for the girl’s killer. He independently researches similar murders, finding parallel cases in nearby areas. Jerry uses his retirement money to purchase a gas station – a perfect cover to await the killer’s next strike. The rest of the movie dramatizes Jerry’s attempt to trap the killer.
The Pledge roused bitter dissent among theater patrons and even caused a rift between two members of The Hatchet arts staff, whose disagreement on the merits of the film could not be handled behind the scenes.
The Pledge marks Sean Penn’s second effort behind the camera. The film is an admirable artistic endeavor and should certainly be hailed as an exceptional movie.
Thematically, the film runs parallel to Penn’s directorial debut, The Crossing Guard (Miramax). Both films follow a man who, troubled by the death of a young girl, seeks revenge on her killer while driving himself to the brink of insanity in the process.
Nicholson’s performance is nearly identical to his characterization in The Crossing Guard, but his emotional breakdown is made far more believable thanks to better scripting. Penn, a close friend of Nicholson, clearly had him in mind for the part from the beginning.
Although it clocks in at a little more than two hours, The Pledge feels tighter than The Crossing Guard. Lush mountain landscapes reminiscent of Ansel Adams photographs appear repeatedly between scenes. The image of a solitary Nicholson fishing in the middle of a great, placid lake recurs throughout.
Benicio Del Toro (Traffic), the only other well-known actor involved in this picture, is nearly unrecognizable as a mentally handicapped Native American. He has larger roles in two movies also now in theaters, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and Guy Ritchie’s Snatch. Usually cast as a miscreant and loose canon, Del Toro proves his versatility in the film, although his abilities are still largely untested.
The most endearing quality of The Pledge is its ability to draw a distinct reaction from the audience. A viewer might loathe Jerry Black for his actions, but this is understandable. Nicholson’s depiction of Jerry’s flaws create a very human and very strong character.
Audiences that arrive at the theater expecting the traditional Hollywood fare – tying up of loose ends and righting wrongs – will be disappointed by the tragic realism of The Pledge‘s anti-climax. Moviegoers who are not searching for typical Hollywood escapism and are capable of stomaching a dose of reality will find themselves well entertained.
The Pledge is a low-quality film riddled with incongruity and unbelievable characterizations. This movie, with its sweeping camera moves and intentionally twisted plot, tries too hard to be avant-garde. In the end, The Pledge is nothing but a piece of condescending filmography with a plot that is painfully muddled.
Nicholson plays this movie like many of his others, not as a character, but as himself. Although this technique has earned him great acclaim in the past, it just does not work in this film. Nicholson is unable to produce the level of emotion needed to compliment the supposed passion of his character. His portrayal is unbelievable, and his character’s motivations are unclear for most of the movie.
Wide, sweeping landscapes are presented for long periods in the movie and a great deal of screen time is devoted to simply watching Jerry fish in a small boat. Even the most dedicated outdoorsman will find himself wishing for less fish and for more plot. The fishing metaphor is, in general, overdone. The long, drawn-out scenes showcase the fact that The Pledge is more about looks than content.
Admittedly, Benicio Del Toro lights up the screen with a powerful characterization. His short performance, which comes early in the film, is the one positive aspect of The Pledge.
At more than two hours, The Pledge is a minimally inspired B art movie that fails to entertain despite a somewhat original spin on an unoriginal story line. Fans of conventional whodunit movies will find The Pledge to be less than satisfying. Some people may be intrigued by the film’s bizarre plot, but for most it is just another recipe for a bad night out.