Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Pledge

THE PLEDGE       B+   
USA  (123 mi)  2001  ‘Scope  d:  Sean Penn

This is a Sean Penn film with a brooding quality and a highly distinctive, snowy opening, where the opening credit sequence lists a cast of characters that looks like one of the greatest casts ever assembled.  While the opening scenes are in Reno, Nevada, the rest of the film was shot in the moody landscapes of British Columbia, one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places on the planet.  Shot by Chris Menges, the look of the film is notable for its terrific use of nature, where man is dwarfed by the larger circumstances surrounding human existence, where often the balance goes askew.  In changing times, when the overwhelming rush of the present can usher out the old with a certain indifferent disdain, one has a tendency to become instantly irrelevant, old before our time if we’re not careful, where the principles we live by can become easily discarded, replaced by a cynicism of so-called modern efficiency where numbers and statistics often take precedence over hard earned instincts and professional wisdom.  Jack Nicholson, in one of his unsung performances back when he was truly a *great* actor, not playing some caricature of himself, is retiring Reno police detective Jerry Black, seen ice-fishing in a terrific wintry opening filled with an atmospheric mystery.  He’s already seen as out of touch with today’s group of police officers when he’s given a surprise retirement party, but sees something in the corner of his eyes that suggests trouble.  Sure enough, a young girl has been found sexually brutalized and murdered, found dead by a child on a snowmobile in the snow of a nearby frozen lake.  While he still has 6 hours left on duty, he is appalled at what he discovers on the scene, not only the brutal horror of the crime, but also the amateurish way the police on the scene are handling the case.  Adapted by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski from Swiss playwright Friedrich Düerrenmatt’s book, the film is an existential murder mystery that thrives on the chaos created from the event itself, where waves of disturbing ramifications will offset any rational methods used to solve what is essentially a crime of nature, leaving behind an unspeakable trauma that exists on its own.

Aaron Eckhart is Stan, a cynical detective filling Jerry’s shoes, and we see he likes to cut corners and take the easy route, something of a showboat, exactly the opposite of Jerry’s more internalized, exhaustively thorough style, where Nicholson actually channels his own subdued performance in THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972).  Much to Jerry’s consternation, Stan goes way over the top in an interrogation interview with a suspect, Benicio del Toro as a mentally disturbed Native Indian sex offender known as Toby.  Stan probably breaks all the rules of fairness and objectivity by leading Toby into a confession, never really giving him any other option, where it’s clear the suspect is so confused, he’d probably admit to anything.  Nonetheless Stan raises his arms in victory to the interrogation room hidden camera, as if he just scored a touchdown.  Two minutes later, however, Toby takes a gun from one of the jailers and blows his brains out.  To all the officers involved, including Dale Dickey and Sam Shepard as two of the commanders, the case is closed.  Only Jerry remains convinced there’s a killer still on the loose, and despite being officially retired, he continues to work the case, discovering a pattern of similar murders in the same geographical region going back ten years, all targeting 7-year old blond girls, sexually violating every one before they are brutally murdered.  What haunts him the most, however, is informing the parents of the most recent victim, where the distraught mother (Patricia Clarkson) makes him promise on his “soul’s salvation” that he will find who did this to their little girl.  With that, his conscience has been unable to rest.  Perhaps the most dramatic moment in the entire film is provided by Vanessa Redgrave as the victim’s piano teacher, where recalling one of the deceased’s  favorite passages from Hans Christian Anderson becomes one of the most chilling scenes of the film.  She also gives Jerry a picture made by the recent victim of a man she was supposed to meet, depicted as a giant in the Porcupine Forest where he is actually giving her something resembling tiny porcupines while arriving in a large, black station wagon.  While the entire police force scoffs at the idea, Jerry is sure the girl was drawing a picture of the potential killer.  Accordingly, he visits Helen Mirren as a child psychologist, whose analysis of the picture is as much about Jerry himself, as he won’t let go of his nagging theory.

One thing that’s clear as the story progresses is the stunning use of these name actors, including appearances by Mickey Rourke and Lois Smith, most onscreen for just a few short minutes, yet their dramatic impact is felt, giving the film a certain gravity it wouldn’t otherwise have.  Penn also uses a poetic realism in advancing his story, where one of the most gorgeous transitions is Jerry moving to the country, into the land of Field and Stream territory, where the drive along a river in a Jeep hauling a boat is accompanied by a simply sublime use of music, including the African song from Mozambique, “Nwalhulwana,” performed by Wazimbo and the Orchestra Marrabenta Star de Moçambique, seen in a brief movie clip here, The Pledge, music - Mozambique - Nwalhulwana ... - YouTube (49 seconds), and in its entirety here, Mozambique Nwalhulwana Mazimbo360p H 264 AAC - YouTube (3:46).  Using a map drawn of the site of the murders, he buys an old gas station and connecting house from Harry Dean Stanton (who actually plays a normal person!), figuring the murderer would have to pass through this area.  With this in mind, he dedicates his life to the best trout lakes in Nevada, while waiting, keeping a continual lookout for anyone who fits the picture description.  The film is further compounded by the introduction of the director’s wife at the time, Robin Wright Penn as Lori, a local bartender who lives with her own 8-year old daughter Chrissy (Pauline Roberts), eventually moving in with Jerry after a violent incident of domestic abuse.  What starts out as friendship leads to more, developing an intimate relationship, where Jerry seems to specialize in reading bedtime stories at night.  While there are a few false leads, in Jerry’s mind, they are indistinguishable from reality, enmeshed with the rhythm and routine of his own life, where protecting Chrissy at all costs from black station wagons and the bogeyman “is” his new occupation.  With bold, unconventional storytelling, we seem to lose track of time, much as Jerry loses his own internalized moral bearings, as the dizzying pace of the world around him seems to pass him by, leaving him to dwell on his illusions and personal obsessions, where the bleak, off-setting finale may leave much of the audience puzzled, as there’s no satisfying symmetry or conclusive rationale for what happens.  Nicholson is simply astonishing throughout, tormented, riveting, yet always completely understated, as is the original music by Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer, yet the tranquil, atmospheric look of the film, surrounded by such majestic beauty, provides a mystifying tone of existential ambiguity and human mystery.  


  1. This film is underrated, just look at the cast alone. I find it so haunting.

  2. Yeah, I love the visual landscapes, the conflicting internal mystery which shifts the focus of crime completely onto the investigating detective, the gorgeously haunting music, and, as you point out, such a great cast so beautifully used for greater dramatic effect.