Saturday, June 23, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: THE PLEDGE (2001)

(US, 2001)

Directed by Sean Penn.  Written by Jerzy Kromilowski and Mary Olson-Kromilowski.  Cast: Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Aaron Eckhart, Benicio del Toro, Sam Shepard, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Patricia Clarkson, Michael O'Keefe, Mickey Rourke, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Noonan, Costas Mandylor, Pauline Roberts, Dale Dickey, Lois Smith. (R, 124 mins)

I saw THE PLEDGE when it opened in theaters in January 2001, and as it progressed, it started to feel very familiar.  I kept thinking I'd just seen numerous elements of the plot in some straight-to-VHS European film a few years prior.  And it turns out I did.  The 1996 English-language Dutch film THE COLD LIGHT OF DAY (starring Richard E. Grant) was an adaptation of the same 1958 novel Das Versprechen, by Swiss mystery writer Friedrich Durrenmatt.  Durrenmatt wrote the script for the German thriller ES GESCHAH AM HELLICHTEN TAG (IT HAPPENED IN BROAD DAYLIGHT) and expanded that script into the novel.  It was remade for German TV in 1997 and also turned into a 1979 Italian thriller titled LA PROMESSA. 

THE PLEDGE, the third film directed by Sean Penn, is the first American take on the Durrenmatt source novel and it's more of a psychological character study than the suspense thriller that the trailer and TV spots were selling.  That doesn't mean there aren't some tense moments throughout, but people expecting a fast-paced nailbiter were probably disappointed and the film didn't do well at all.  It's managed to find a following over the last decade, largely through still-frequent cable airings and also because it always seems to turn up in articles about "Great Movies You've Never Heard Of," or on lists of Jack Nicholson's most underrated films that always seem to make the rounds on his birthday.  This is right up there with the following year's ABOUT SCHMIDT as a great late-career Nicholson performance.  Nicholson hasn't acted regularly since the mid-1990s, and THE PLEDGE was his first film since his Oscar-winning turn in 1997's AS GOOD AS IT GETS.  While he hasn't gone into retirement, his film appearances over the last decade and a half have been sporadic enough that it's always an event when he's onscreen again.  At this point in his life, Nicholson, now 75, only works when he wants to and as a result, he gives it his all, presumably because he's legitimately enthused about the project. 

Nicholson, starring in his second film for Penn (the first was 1995's powerful, little-seen THE CROSSING GUARD), is retiring Reno detective Jerry Black.  On his last day on the job (which Penn and screenwriters Jerzy Kromilowski and Mary Olson-Kromilowski thankfully don't turn into a cliche), Jerry leaves his retirement party with some other cops when a little girl's body is found in a snow-covered farmland area.  A suspect--Native American Toby Wadenah (Benicio del Toro)--is quickly rounded up and interrogated by Jerry's cocky replacement Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart), who doesn't seem to care that Toby, who has a rape conviction in his past, is clearly mentally challenged and doesn't comprehend the questions.  Krolak coerces a confession out of Toby, who promptly steals a deputy's gun and commits suicide.  The case is closed by Krolak and Capt. Pollack (Sam Shepard), but Jerry, who pledged to the dead girl's parents (Patricia Clarkson, Michael O'Keefe) that he would find the killer, is unconvinced.

Postponing a fishing trip and conducting his own investigation, Jerry finds possible connections to two other killings/abductions of little girls that took place over the last eight years, based on the most recent victims drawings of a black car, driven by a "giant" she called "The Wizard." Pollack and Krolak dismiss his concerns and think the twice-divorced Jerry is suffering from retirement anxiety and can't let go of the job.  Moving to a small town between the two towns where the past attacks occurred, Jerry buys a gas station and befriends single mom Lori (Robin Wright) and her seven-year-old daughter Chrissy (Pauline Roberts).  It looks like a content retirement for Jerry as Lori and Chrissy move in with him and a familial bond develops.  But at some point, Jerry opts for the unthinkable:  by buying Chrissy clothes similar to the red dresses the victims wore, and by putting her swing set right near the road outside the gas station, he practically advertises her availability to The Wizard.  His obsession has become so overwhelming that he's actually using Chrissy to set a trap.

There's much ambiguity here as Penn and the screenwriters are never clear if that was Jerry's intention all along. Maybe the gas station was a longshot trap, but with Chrissy, he has bait.  We don't know how soon those wheels start turning in Jerry's head after he meets Chrissy.  But it eventually supercedes the (I believe) legitimate feelings he's developed for Lori and Chrissy.  Maybe he can't let go of the job, maybe it's a past unsolved case that still gnaws at him and he sees this as redemption...or maybe he's achieved some kind of spiritual rebirth through the pledge he makes to the dead girl's mother.  That scene is really the only major misstep in THE PLEDGE.  It's presented in such a heavy-handed fashion that it doesn't ring true.  It's not enough to have Jerry haltingly promise to find the killer (on his last day, no less--and you get the sense he's not serious about it), but it's a bit over-the-top when the mother pulls a cross down from the wall and makes him swear on his soul's salvation by a cross that was handmade by the dead girl. Regardless, something snaps in Jerry at that moment and he can't rest until he's seen this through to its inevitably devastating end. 

As larger-than-life as he is offscreen, it's always amazing how adept Nicholson is at disappearing into character parts and not simply coming off as "Jack."  His performance as the tortured, tragic Jerry Black is one of his most subtle and understated.  There's no outbursts, sarcastic comments, arched eyebrows, or wicked grins.  It's a haunting performance in a film that stays with you long after it's over.  Nicholson gets stellar support from a packed supporting cast filled with a lot of Penn pals, most of whom (Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Harry Dean Stanton, and Mickey Rourke), only have what amount to cameos.  Rourke has about two minutes of screen time and is absolutely gut-wrenching as the father of a missing girl.

There is no real closure for any characters in THE PLEDGE, a bleak, somber examination of obsession that deserved a better commercial reception than it got, though it's admittedly a tough sell and Warner Bros. probably shouldn't have rolled it out nationwide.  But it further established Penn as a maker of challenging, uncompromising films (after THE CROSSING GUARD and his 1991 directing debut THE INDIAN RUNNER) and showcased Nicholson in one of the top performances of his career, which is really saying something.  It's a powerful, thought-provoking work, and it's very quietly come around to being regarded by many as one of the great unsung films of its decade.

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