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A Worthwhile 'Pledge'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 19, 2001


    'The Pledge' Jack Nicholson, Aaron Eckhart and Sam Shepard in "The Pledge." (Warner Bros.)
Sean Penn's third film as a director -- a murder mystery based on Swiss writer Friedrich Duerrenmatt's "The Pledge" -- satisfies, but not in the manner of a conventional whodunit. That's because, first and foremost, the film seems to have only the most desultory interest in Who Actually Done It.

Not so its protagonist, an obsessed former homicide detective by the name of Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson), who, on the day of his retirement from the Reno police force, finds himself in the unenviable position of informing the parents (Patricia Clarkson and Michael O'Keefe) of an 8-year-old girl that their child has just been raped and butchered in the snowy woods nearby. From a distance, we watch the weathered-looking soon-to-be-ex-cop deliver the bad news to the stunned couple, seen standing in their poultry barn in the middle of a sea of dumb-looking, raisin-eyed turkeys.

It's just the first of several surreally lovely images here; you can imagine Penn's squinty eyes peering through the camera at such peripheral minutiae as the digits of a gas station pump counter tumbling in slow motion, a flock of black birds flying overhead or a pink helium balloon drifting skyward. He and Oscar-winning director of photography Chris Menges give these pictures a slightly ominous feeling, but they tell us little about the case under investigation. They're less clues, really, than commentary about the existential and beautiful absurdity of the world we live in.

Although an arrest is quickly made (an almost unrecognizable Benicio Del Toro plays the mentally challenged Native American suspect), the accused's confession (coerced out of him by cocky cop Aaron Eckhart) and his sudden suicide on the way back to his holding cell don't convince Jerry, who has made a solemn promise to the girl's mother to find the guy who did it. But since the Reno P.D. won't reopen the case, the now retired detective vows to make the mystery his life's mission, buying a gas station near the murder scene and moving there so that he can be closer to where the killer operates. As it turns out, Jerry discovers a couple of similar unsolved killings in the area from a few years back and now he believes they're related.

Now, wait a minute. It's a quibble, but to anyone who's seen a crime drama, the refusal of Jerry's colleagues to believe him seems odd. Why can't they compare the DNA of the suspect with genetic material from the rape? And what about the girl's buttons, which Jerry (who has the reputation of having been a meticulous investigator) insisted be examined for fingerprints? Couldn't forensics either incriminate or exonerate the man who just blew his own brains out? Penn and husband-and-wife writers Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski just drop these technicalities, which in a more conventional thriller would at least be acknowledged.

Ah, but "The Pledge" is nothing if not unconventional. Its point is not knowledge or discovery but the assertion that knowledge and discovery are ultimately impossible. The story tracks not the unraveling arc of clues but Jerry's emotional and moral tailspin as he fashions himself into a kind of avenging angel, bonding with a local woman (Robin Wright Penn) and her vulnerable young daughter (Pauline Roberts). To Jerry, who is a fisherman by avocation, the girl is both potential victim and bait.

Jerry may be desperately looking for answers (and, man, is Nicholson good at looking desperate!), but if you walk into this movie you'd better not be. If you want Acting with a capital A, though, you came to the right place: Look for cameos from Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, Sam Shepard and Harry Dean Stanton.

Like the underrated Norwegian film "Insomnia," the multiple Cannes prize-winning "Humanity" and other thrillers of the noir nouveau ilk, "The Pledge" cares not a whit for such arbitrary concepts as justice, crime or punishment. It understands the relativism of right and wrong and takes a kind of perverse pleasure in reminding us that there are some things we'll never know.

"The Pledge" (R, 124 minutes) – Contains glimpses of grisly crime scenes, a graphic suicide by handgun and fleeting sexual innuendo.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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