"The Pledge" is the newest film directed by Sean Penn and stars Jack Nicholson in one of his best performances. It is also a film that Penn wants to tell at his own pace, a slow, laborious pace, which often threatens to take the film down with it.
Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson), is a detective with the Reno, Nevada police department about to retire. His boss (Sam Shepard) and his replacement (Aaron Eckhart) are called away from the retirement party to deal with a new homicide. Jerry asks to ride along, even though he is six hours away from retirement. What they find is an eight year old blond girl who has been raped and killed, dumped in the snow up near a rural Nevada town. The local police are sickened by the crime and have difficulty dealing with it. The task of informing the parents eventually falls to Jerry. The grief stricken mother (Patricia Clarkson) makes Jerry promise to find the killer. He does. As he is set to leave on his retirement trip, a deep sea fishing trip paid for by people in the department, he has second thoughts and returns to the case.
For the first half of the film, Nicholson investigates the murder, visiting a series of suspects or people that may be involved or able to help with the case. These people are played by an impressive array of character actors, but their roles are very small. This provides Nicholson with a showcase. Nicholson's Jerry Black is a man that is happier when working and doesn't relish the thought of retirement. This isn't portrayed in his usual bombastic way. Nicholson plays Black quietly, making him real, making him human. He could be a real detective on the police force. He shows a lot of emotion with his face, indicating when he is unhappy, frightened, disgusted, pleased, content. This is a far cry from the Nicholson we are used to watching. Believe me, it is a welcome sight to watch Nicholson become a real human being rather than a character become Nicholson.
"The Pledge" is about Jerry Blacks' journey to find the killer. He questions the girl's grandmother (Vannesa Redgrave), enlists the aid of a child psychologist (Helen Mirren), and watches the questioning of a suspect, a mentally challenged Indian (Benicio Del Toro, in his third film role in one month).
At one point, Jerry shows a drawing the child did to his former boss (Shepard) . Claiming the giant drawn in the picture is the killer, Black effectively alienates the department he previously worked for. Unable to turn up new leads, he ends up buying a gas station in a small town from it's tired owner (Harry Dean Stanton). Soon, he meets an abused woman (Robin Wright Penn) and her daughter and takes them in.
"The Pledge" works as a character study, and at times, the slow pace of the film help it seem all the more authentic. Penn creates some magnificent, moody set pieces, but ultimately, the film becomes too slow for its own good. In the first hour, Penn creates an entirely believable retirement party in a run down casino restaurant. The investigation scenes in the snowy drifts are also very believable. In the second hour, when the journey becomes more personal, I enjoyed watching the way events unfolded, but I know many people were bored by the pace. Penn falls into the trap of including too many lingering shots of things. I get it. This is the way life is in this town, in this area, but it doesn't help the story in the long run.
I also enjoyed the ending. It seemed more authentic than most conventional thrillers. But again, I think it left a lot of people in the dark and in the cold.
There are some problems with "The Pledge" beyond it's pacing. The impressive list of character actors was welcome, but their roles were more distracting than anything else. Each is featured for about five minutes before Black moves on. Five minutes of Helen Mirren? She's always great, but I wanted more of her. Also, her role doesn't seem to advance the story at all. Likewise, Vanessa Redgrave. She merely reiterates that the victim was very sweet and innocent. However, the victim's mother already impressed this upon us. I guess, in a way, her character does play a bigger part in the overall film, but only indirectly. Harry Dean Stanton has literally four lines. It reminded me of some of the celebrities who appear in Woody Allen's films. Some of the celebrities are featured in large, substantial parts. Some have what basically amounts to a walk-on. These roles are walk-ons. Benicio Del Toro creates another vivid character, who has a large part in the overall mystery. In the last month, we have seen three films with Del Toro, each of which has proven that he is a very, very good actor.
I think you will find Nicholson's performance in "The Pledge" worth the price of admission alone. Hopefully, you will not be put off by the slow pace or challenging ending.