"The Pledge," (IMDb listing) directed by Sean Penn, tells the tale of Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson), a respected member of the Reno Police Department who is about to retire. During Jerry's own retirement party, word arrives that the body of a young girl has
been found in the wilderness. Driven by dedication (or obsession) Jerry visits the crime scene, then travels to the victim's house to inform her parents of the tragedy. The mother forces Jerry to swear on her daughter's handmade cross that he will not rest until he
finds her little girl's killer. The emotionally charged moment leaves an indelible mark on Jerry's mind.
Instead of flying to Mexico for a much-deserved vacation, Jerry does something rather strange: He buys a dilapidated gas station in the vicinity of where the murdered girl was found. Unlike his Reno Police peers, who are convinced that the case has been solved with the apprehension of a mentally disabled Native American (Benicio Del Toro), Jerry believes that the murderer is still on the loose. Drawing upon his years of police work, Jerry develops a profile of the suspect, and comes to the conclusion that a serial killer is targeting young girls in red dresses. Jerry's diligence, however, causes him to make morally ambiguous decisions when he begins a relationship with Lori (Robin Wright Penn), a local woman with a daughter whose age and physical description match that of the murdered girl.
"The Pledge" is a masterpiece of brooding, dark cinema. As Jerry's sanity totters on the brink of collapse, we feel his increasing paranoia. Every man who crosses paths with Lori's daughter is a potential child rapist. Every black vehicle Jerry encounters could
belong to the elusive suspect. The harmless priest who lives down the road becomes, in Jerry's eyes, a menacing caricature of evil, a monster to be abhorred. We sympathize with Jerry's cause, yet we become increasingly appalled by the careless use of Lori's daughter to bait the killer. Even his own friends, who respected him as a stellar policeman, are having doubts about his sanity. Jerry is a man anguished by his need to finish this case, and to bring the murderer to justice. Ultimately, the focus of "The Pledge" becomes
less about finding the real killer, and more about Jerry's struggle with repressed psychological issues.
Jack Nicholson's subdued performance is perfect for such a sad, introspective character. Nicholson's portrayal of Jerry Black is arguably a more challenging role than his recent Oscar-winning performance as Melvin Udall in "As Good as it Gets." Robin Wright Penn is convincing as a weather-beaten single mother in a backwoods town, but her lack of chemistry with Nicholson is painfully obvious. Other notable cameos include Vanessa Redgrave, Benicio Del Toro, and Mickey Rourke, as a man distraught by his daughter's disappearance.
The climax may unnerve some and anger others. I heard some chuckling from the audience as the film closed, but their laughter sounded hollow and forced, as if they were shaking off the uneasy feelings left in their minds. Perhaps the subject matter acted as an
obstacle for these viewers, but for those willing to travel down cinema's dark psychological roads, "The Pledge" will be a powerful experience.
Filmfodder Grade: A