The Pledge



USA 2001
director : Sean Penn
screenplay : Jerzy Kromolowski (based on novel by Friedrich Durrenmatt)
editor : Jay Cassidy
cinematography : Chris Menges
music : Hans Zimmer
lead actors : Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Aaron Eckhart, Tom Noonan
124 mins

Absorbingly sombre adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s 1950s suspense novel stars Jack Nicholson as Jerry Black, a Nevada cop who postpones his retirement when a young girl is found savagely murdered. As Jerry’s investigation darkens into obsession, the screenplay takes increasingly implausible turns – the final twist, exposing a chief suspect as a red herring, may even be rejected by many viewers as barefaced cheating. But any script limitations are triumphantly outweighed by Penn’s astonishingly powerful direction.

His control is so assured that his rare lapses stand out – in particular, one eruption of lurid violence late on that we don’t immediately realise is imaginary. His decision to cast a string of heavyweights in one-scene cameo roles (Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, Harry Dean Stanton, Mickey Rourke), meanwhile, comes off as distractingly self-indulgent, with Benicio Del Toro especially hammy as a brain-damaged suspect. It’s no coincidence that the most effective cameo comes from the most unfamiliar face: Costas Mandylor as a shockingly blas small-town deputy, lifting weights bare-chested as he details a grisly murder, the words tumbling out in a stream of casual arrogance.

Aaron Eckhart contributes another of his breezily hilarious turns as Jerry’s blowhard replacement, but The Pledge is, for the most part, as deadly serious as its star and its director. At every stage, Penn places Nicholson in the context of Jerry’s environment – Chris Menges’ camera captures some remarkable cobalt-blue winterscapes – and the film gradually becomes less a thriller, more a study of a man bewildered by the passage of time, horrified by the police’s plummeting professional standards. Made so forcibly aware of his own impending obsolescence, Jerry is desperate to make a ‘narrative’ structure out of his life’s disintegrating elements: novelist Peter Handke once praised Durrenmatt’s book as a ‘project of a life not dominated by the facts.’

But we don’t realise this at the time – we’re carried along by the force of Nicholson’s performance, and the intricacy of his characterisation. The psychological layers gradually open out as we adjust to Jerry’s rhythms: this is a man who takes time to notice the fog lifting off the trees of a lakeside forest, and adjust his own pace accordingly. Penn invites us to do likewise – and while The Pledge is ultimately just that little bit too contrived to be a truly great film, it’s easily enough to suggest this strikingly talented film-maker will be coming up with a masterpiece before too long.

October 23rd, 2001
(seen 22-Oct-01, UGC Boldon)

by Neil Young
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