Thursday 25 December 2014

Movie Review: The Pledge (2001)

A thoughtful psychological crime drama, The Pledge plays with a patient mood while grappling with a brutal murder and the search for the mysterious predator.

In Reno, Nevada, police detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) is retiring. On his last working day, the brutalized body of a young blonde girl named Ginny is discovered in a snowy field. Jerry pledges to the victims' mother (Patricia Clarkson) that no matter what, he will bring the murderer to justice. Toby (Benicio del Toro), a dimwitted vagabond aboriginal, is arrested and detective Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart) extracts a confession from him, declaring the case closed.

Jerry doubts that Toby is the killer, and after retirement he continues his informal investigation, interviewing Ginny's grandmother Annalise (Vanessa Redgrave); the victim's best friend at school; and the father (Mickey Rourke) of another young blonde girl who met the same fate as Ginny. He gains a vague picture of the killer's car model and colour, and a murky connection between the crimes and porcupines.

Jerry purchases a gas station along the main highway in the rural area where he believes the next murder may happen. As the months pass, he befriends single mom Lori (Robin Wright Penn), who has a young blonde daughter Chrissy (Pauline Roberts) about the same age as the previous victims. Gradually, Jerry starts to encounter men who could be suspects. But Jerry is also hearing voices in his head, and may be starting to lose his grip on reality.

Directed by Sean Penn, The Pledge is an adaptation of the Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt book. This is a film that takes a deep breath from the surrounding landscape, and focusses on characters, atmosphere and emotion. There is little action that takes place on screen, but plenty that goes on in the thoughts, fears, and hopes of Jerry Black as he tries to fulfill the promise he made to the distraught mother of a young victim.

Penn's pacing is deliberate, but nevertheless engrossing. Within the forgotten back road setting where time is slow, towns are small, cars are old and technology is outdated, the film is packed with tiny unsettling moments, indications that all is not well, neither in the rural community stalked by a vicious child killer, nor in Jerry's mind. Jerry could be suffering from old-age, post-retirement emotional turmoil, the stress of his pledge, or something else altogether more serious. Penn provides hints, but never any clear resolutions. What is for sure is that some danger is lurking and closing in, and Jerry is welcoming, almost eager to face his nemesis. Whether or not he is ready is another question.

While The Pledge unfolds on its own terms towards a rich and rumpled conclusion, it does suffer from almost too much silence, as the details of Jerry's deliberate actions are sacrificed in search of style and a brooding aesthetic.

Jack Nicholson provides a thankfully subdued performance, staying well within himself despite the mounting stress. Jerry Black is a stoic, calculating character, well past the days of running after suspects and now more interested in laying an elaborate trap and waiting for the right time to pounce. Nicholson conveys a man under self-imposed pressure, with his judgement increasingly clouded. He may or may not be using Lori and Chrissy as a lure; he likely does not quite know anymore whether his need for a family is in conflict with the burning desire to solve a crime.

In support, almost every one-scene role is brought to life by a prominent actor. In addition to Clarkson, del Toro, Eckhart, Wright Penn, Rourke and Redgrave, Helen Mirren makes an appearance as a psychiatrist, Harry Dean Stanton is the original owner of the gas station purchased by Jerry, and Sam Shepard is a police detective.

The Pledge weaves a spell and luxuriates in its foggy density, as much a crime mystery as a thought-provoking sojourn to the place where promises become obsessions.

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