I had high expectations for The Pledge (2001). It was placed on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list, effectively naming it one of the 300 (give or take) greatest movies of all time. It’s one of a handful of movies Jack Nicholson has made in the 21st Century, which lead me to believe there was something unique about it. The cast is something of an acting dream team; Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright, Benicio Del Toro, Mickey Rourke, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Sam Shepard, Harry Dean Stanton, Dale Dickey and Lois Smith. These are great actors, some high-profile (Nicholson, Mirren), others under-appreciated, but no less talented (Rourke, Dickey). I thought a team like this, even if they didn’t produce something great, would at least be worth watching.
The Pledge disappoints, partly because it is uncreative, partly because it is uninspired. There is merit in something that aimed high and fell short, but The Pledge met all its goals. The skillful execution serves only to highlight the lack of ambition. Sean Penn is adequate as a director, and the actors all do a fantastic job, but The Pledge, unfortunately, offers little deviation from the classic detective narrative. Jerry Black (Nicholson), a recently-retired police officer, is obsessed with a crime he can’t solve; a string of murders committed against young, blonde girls in red dresses. One of the victims’ mothers makes Jerry swear to find the culprit, but his colleagues won’t allow it. He begrudgingly proceeds with retirement, but is haunted by reminders of the crime. As this is happening, he meets and falls in love with a woman named Lori (Wright), and assumes fatherly duties over her daughter, Chrissy (Pauline Roberts), a young, blonde girl. A series of clues lead Jerry to believe the killer will strike against Chrissy, and he makes the fateful decision to use her as bait in a sting operation.
Every moment of The Pledge feels like something we’ve seen before; A cop who has a crazy theory, but the obstinate judicial system refuses to believe it; A mysterious serial killer with a calling-card pattern. These are overused ideas. A generic plot is excusable, if you do something new with it, but The Pledge is unaware of the steps it retraces. Thematically, all of its material is recycled. The film is a meditation on justice and duty, themes that were explored a few years earlier in L.A. Confidential (1997), which did a much better job of challenging the accepted interpretations of these ideas. In The Pledge things simply don’t unfold in a way that is unexpected. There aren’t enough double-crossings and plot twists to satisfy the mystery genre, which appears to be the film’s hook. The screenplay for The Pledge (where most of the problems lie) is based on a novel, so there may not have been any potential to begin with.
The climax of the film is Jerry’s decision to use Chrissy as bait for the criminal. It becomes clear at this point that his tragic flaw is obsession, but this was not previously established. Lori calls Jerry crazy in the final scene of the film, but Jerry has not been acting crazy. For most of the movie, he was rational and safe. His concerns were appropriate and his fixation on the crime did not affect his ability to be an attentive father/husband. Only his final decision was dangerous. The writers clearly didn’t know what story they were telling until the end. If the theme of the film was obsession, there should have been signs along the way that would foreshadow the character’s downfall.
As one might expect, Penn’s strength as a director is his ability to get performances out of actors. He clearly possesses an intricate understanding of the acting process and it’s safe to assume he creates a productive working environment for performers. In the editing room, Penn knows exactly what takes to use to isolate the actors’ strong points. He might have made a better theater director than a film director, because he is good with actors, but not a visual thinker. When it comes to portraying flashbacks, or characters hearing voices, Penn is extremely literal. He underestimates the audience’s literacy with dream logic, so the film becomes rigidly mannered in its enactment.
My feeling that The Pledge would be worth seeing was correct. If nothing else, you should see it for the actors. It does not have the makings of a great story, but it’s serviceable, and it anticipates later 21st Century police movies like The Departed (2006) and Mystic River (2003), where the action is pitched to a higher intensity and the characters are more developed. The lasting effect of the film is dim, but the attentive viewer can appreciate its unique assets.