The Pledge Movie Review

An early note to parents with young, blonde daughters: Think twice about seeing The Pledge, and if you must go -- if you're eager to see Jack Nicholson give one of his best cinematic performances ever -- then take a Valium before entering the theater and practice saying, "This won't happen to my family! This won't happen to my family!"

From the opening shot, where we see the top of Nicholson's half-bald, hair-transplanted head, The Pledge is an exercise in stomaching an ugly truth. Body parts, pony-tailed girls splotched with blood and bruises -- this isn't a film about happy endings and human triumph. Suspected sex perverts lurk down every road in The Pledge, causing Nicholson's character, a retired homicide detective, so much angst that he becomes his own worst enemy.

Sean Penn has directed a dark thriller that encrusts Jerry Black (Nicholson) with a Sisyphean task: Find the person who savaged a child in the snow near Reno, Nevada. Bloated and baggy-eyed, Black enters the case on the night of his retirement party, then volunteers to work on it for the next year and a half, after pledging to the dead girl's mother that he'll bring the killer to justice. (Hence the movie's title.)

Trailers for The Pledge have played up the intensity of Nicholson's character, but those expecting a bigger-than-life caricature a la A Few Good Men or The Shining (or any number of other Nicholson vehicles) will be disappointed. Nicholson, whose character looks like he'd be perfectly at home in a bowling alley, is relatively understated in The Pledge, and that's what makes it so riveting and believable. There are no over-the-top moments that call for lines like "You can't handle the truth!" Instead of yelling his way past obstacles, Jerry Black navigates through clues like an old, frustrated man. Nicholson told a Hollywood reporter that he was "more of myself" in The Pledge, and moviegoers have Penn to thank for this real-life performance. Penn and Nicholson are good friends and apparently share a love of storytelling that doesn't rely on gimmicks or pyrotechnics. In fact, Penn based The Pledge on a 1958 novel by Swiss writer Friedrich Durrenmatt: "A German existentialist," according to a man at the screening I attended.

Existential terror is just one of the many layers that give The Pledge a sheen that is sickening and yet satisfying to watch. There is beauty in The Pledge, represented by the snowy, green outdoors and the face of the young girl who Jerry Black strongly believes could be the next victim. An ensemble cast of veteran actors and actresses (led by Helen Mirren, who plays a psychologist) lets Penn add scenes that flush out the edges of Nicholson's memorable character.

My biggest complaint: Why did Penn have to give his wife, Robin Wright Penn, such a big role? Wright Penn has improved her acting since She's So Lovely, the 1997 flick that showcased her, her husband, and John Travolta, but that's like saying Monica Lewinsky has gotten smarter and more articulate since first emerging into the international spotlight from the shadows of the White House. Wright Penn is a blight on the Penn name. For her to appear in the same movie as Nicholson, let alone kiss him on screen and consort with him, is a testament to the credo, "Anything is possible in America."

And anything is. The Pledge is a reminder that evil is alive and well on this planet. Getting rid of it is harder than it looks.

Pour him a stiff one.


The Pledge Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: R, 2001


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