As an actor, Sean Penn is known for the sheer intensity of his performances, and he carries that vivid tenacity to his work as a director. In The Pledge, Penn once again travels familiar terrain by documenting a man in the midst of an emotional meltdown.
Initially, Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) seems content with his lot. A homicide detective in Reno, Nev., he’s headed for a quiet retirement of undisturbed fishing trips. But the night of his retirement party, a call comes in: A little girl has been found brutally murdered. Jerry rides along to the snowy, remote crime scene and ends up once again as the bearer of bad news to the parents. Swept up in the immense, focused grief of Ginny’s mother, Margaret Larsen (Patricia Clarkson), Jerry makes her a promise: He’ll discover who did this horrible thing. The obvious suspect (Benicio Del Toro, again immersed in a disturbed character with an inscrutable accent) confesses, but Jerry has a suspicion that Ginny’s death is part of a pattern.
After settling into a new life as owner of a rural gas station, Jerry becomes involved with Lori (Robin Wright Penn), a waitress — battered by her ex-husband and seemingly by life itself — who has a young daughter, Chrissy (Pauline Roberts). They construct a stable, happy nuclear family, but there’s a nagging question about Jerry’s actions when it begins to appear that he’s using Chrissy as live bait for the killer he believes resides in the vicinity.
The screenplay, adapted by Jerzy and Mary Olson Kromolowski from Friedrich Durrenmatt’s novel, is ambivalent about Jerry’s motivations: Just as he’s embracing happiness, he’s laying the groundwork for its inevitable failure.
Instead of stumbling around, intoxicated by vengeance as he was in Penn’s The Crossing Guard, Nicholson’s trademark quirks are subdued into a beautiful, nuanced performance, with his distinctive Jackness turned inward and transformed into a kind of grace (which is why the mannered mumblings of the first and last scene hit so hard and feel so out of place).
As a visual stylist, Penn improves on his stellar debut, The Indian Runner, making even the most routine shot in The Pledge interesting. He grasps something few filmmakers master: the way characters isolate themselves, whether it’s in a room full of people or in the vast outdoors. It’s a perfect choice for this tale of a man who defines self-containment, damn the consequences.
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