THE PLEDGE / (2001) ***1/2 (out of four)
By Blake French:
Don't go to "The Pledge" expecting it to be a suspense thriller with a lot of fast-paced action and the tension peak high. By the misleading trailer and TV ads, I was personally expecting the above. "The Pledge," directed by the underrated actor and producer Sean Penn, is more of an unraveling drama than a genuine nail-biter. The film is a lot more than a conventional, run of the mill chiller. It vividly describes the process in which a person goes through before he reaches the state of insanity. The movie is most outwardly about obsession and commitment, more subtly about loneliness and depravity. This is one the most unusually absorbing movies of the new year.
Sean Penn is often overlooked as a Hollywood figure. He is an actor more often then he is a director (his most memorable directing feature was "The Crossing Guard"), but his work quite variegated. In 1998, Penn Portrayed a Sergeant in Terrence Malick's acclaimed war drama "The Thin Red Line," and a drug addicted Hollywood casting agent in "Hurlyburly." In 1997, he portrayed Michael Douglas' estranged brother in David Fincher's mystery thriller "The Game," and a down-on-his-luck drifter in Oliver Stone's gritty film noir "U-Turn." He delivered his most powerful performance in 1995 as a man on death row in "Dead Man Walking." Now, with "The Pledge" he is harrowing and intense, even though the script is often slow moving and monotonous. The stark edge and superior direction give the movie an authentic feel and emotional vigor. Sean Penn once again proves himself to be an excellent filmmaker especially behind the screen.
The enormously talented, Academy Award winner Jack Nicholson stars as the retiring Reno homicide detective Jerry Black. Jerry is a superb investigator, and when he examines his final case, the sexual assault and murder of an eight-year-old girl, he promises the victim's mother he will find the individual in charge of the atrocity. Police quickly bring in a mentally handicapped American Indian (Benicio Del Toro), who was found fleeing the crime scene and previously served time for rape and various other crimes. It appears that the officers found the man responsible, and when he confesses to the crime and kills himself, the other officers, including Jerry's friend, Stan (Aaron Eckhart), and their boss (Sam Shepard), consider this an open-shut case. Jerry has a gut-feeling this person is not who they are looking for, however.
The remainder of the movie is not about a police investigation, but more about Jerry Black's reaction to the events that have taken place. His obsession with catching the killer eventually leads to him going crazy, after he betrays his new friends, a single mother (Robin Wright Penn), and her young daughter. I personally desired more material involving the investigation instead of the development of the relationship between him and Robin Wright Penn's character, but that is not what the movie intended for us to watch. Regardless, the story arguably begins at its strongest point, and gradually losses much momentum as the mystery is not fully explored, and certain elements feel setup but are not paid off.
Some of the production's technical areas are also very astonishing, like the original music by Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer, and the cinematography by Chris Menges. Such ambient factors make for a sleepy and tranquil mood similar to the one in "Fargo." This film's soundtrack contains enthralling, refreshing, and captivating instrumental tones. Jack Nicholson is tormenting, riveting. He is the central of the movie, and it doesn't pretends otherwise. His performance provides energy for the story.
"The Pledge" is the type of movie that leaves us pondering about the opportunities passed by and the chances missed by the characters, the ironic coincidences, and the perplexing twists. The ending leaves us with more questions than answers, but that factor contributes greatly to the emotional impact the film has. "The Pledge" could have been more than it is, but considering the temptations the screenwriters overcame, it is more than what most of us would expect.
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