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The Pledge

August 19, 2014

The Pledge (2001)
Director: Sean Penn
Actors: Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Aaron Eckhart

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Synopsis: Retiring Reno cop, Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson), is pulled out to the scene of a grisly rape and murder of a young girl on the night of his retirement party. Although nominally retired, Black develops an obsession for the case (mainly due to a religious ‘pledge’ he makes with the girl’s mother), and a misgiving over the wrongful conviction of the crime leads him to completely revamp his retirement plan to catch what he perceives to be the still-at-loose killer.

Review: The Pledge is a laudable piece of filmmaking by Sean Penn, where he really works some bold and novel elements into his story’s reasonably familiar canvas of a cop getting evermore obsessed by a murder case. First, there’s the hook of having the cop in question (Jack Nicholson’s Jerry Black) as a man who retires on the day of the seminal killing (Penn cross-cuts portentously between the aftermath of the murder and Black’s retirement party in the opening stages). Thus, The Pledge becomes not only an exercise in (and deconstruction of?) the serial killer genre but also a character study, as Black sabotages his own retirement plans and late-life peace of mind, for embedding himself in the rural Nevadan community where he believes the child killer may still be at large. Perhaps Penn didn’t need to include an actual deeply gothic religious pledge as plot motif, and postscripting the film with Black jabbering away at his frustrations à la King Lear is a touch overly-demonstrative, but Penn’s lustrous confidence in committing to such a profound psychological story is admirable.

Where Penn succeeds unequivocally is in his visual realisation of the film. He seems like a man who really knows his cinematic history (the work has a New American Cinema feel to it – not just through the inclusion of that movement’s icon, Jack Nicholson), and he creates some stunning pictoral moments – notably the haunting image of the dead girl dressed in red and splattered in blood against the snowy white rural backdrop, then the immense turkey farm where Black reveals to the girl’s parents the unconscionable horror of what has occurred. Penn intrinsically understands that in a story like this, there can be no happy endings, no epiphanies nor catharsis, as important portents and clues go unanswered as Black drifts into the mire of his obsession and bad luck. And the film was also ample proof that Jack Nicholson – some way past his sixtieth birthday – could still easily own such a serious, complex role as this one here. (August 2014)

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