The Pledge Movie Review

Director Sean Penn and star Jack Nicholson must have been drawn to the complexity of the haunted ex-detective character at the center of "The Pledge," because he's just about the only thing at all uncommon in this largely conventional serial killer suspense flick.

Although, even calling him uncommon is a stretch. Reno homicide dick Jerry Black is pretty much an assembly-line character -- a freshly retired cop obsessed with finding the "real killer" in an officially closed murder case that was his last assignment. Having made a promise to the parents of the dead little girl, he's still following hunches on his own time because nobody in the precinct believes him.

Doesn't Jerry sound like a regulation Morgan Freeman character? But with Nicholson in the role, he's a bit more of a wildcard. Big Jack brings an element of instability to Jerry that leaves the audience concerned for his sanity when his ostensive retirement finds him buying a gas station at a High Sierra crossroads as his nest egg because it's at the center of a geographic pattern he's discovered for his suspect.

But even with the added intensity of one of the greatest actors alive throwing psychological curveballs into the picture, "The Pledge" is only interesting insofar as Jerry's thematic struggle with his demons.

The particularly brutal murder that bedevils him is that of an 8-year-old girl killed on the night he retired. Jerry discovers an ambiguous match to two previous unsolved cases, but within a matter of days his hotshot partner (Aaron Eckhart) has coerced a confession out of a raving, simple-minded suspect (Benicio Del Toro in a potent incognito cameo) spotted near the scene of the crime. The suspect subsequently kills himself in custody, and the cops wash their hands of the whole affair. All this happens without a single forensic test of any kind, which sends the very concept of the movie into a credibility tailspin.

Convinced by circumstantial evidence that the true killer will strike again, Jerry thinks he may have even found the next target -- the pretty little daughter (Pauline Roberts) of a local waitress and battered wife (Robin Wright Penn) -- and sets out on an obsessive-compulsive mission to protect her (and her mother) from evil.

As a director, Penn is undeniably effective. "The Pledge" (based on a German language novel by Friedrich Duerrenmatt) is certainly disturbing and tense -- especially with the deliberate ambiguities Penn lets linger in the film. Does Jerry let the girl and her mother move in with him to keep a closer eye on her? Or could he have become so besieged by his intentions that he's using her as bait?

The uniformly distinguished performances of a superlative cast help buttress the picture -- from Nicholson's increasingly erratic preoccupation to a one-scene knockout by Mickey Rourke as the still-tortured father of an early victim.

But oh, the innumerable trite plot devices given pretensive gravity by Penn's heavy hand! My favorite is the way that every time Jerry's young charge begins singing some music box song like "You Are My Sunshine" or "Jesus Loves Me," the soundtrack tenses and you know an ominous figure (and potential suspect) is lurking about.

When, on occasion, "The Pledge" does deviate from the dog-eared playbook for serial killer dramas, Penn's influence can be felt everywhere. For instance, the picture makes subtle symbolic use of the desert-and-snowy-peak duplicity of Nevada's western border region.

But since the movie mostly coasts down the predictable straight-and-narrow, there's very little compelling, or even memorable, about it -- with the possible exception of the decidedly un-Hollywood finale.


Comments

The Pledge Rating

" Grim "

Rating: R, Opened: Friday, January 19, 2001

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