The Pledge (2001)

Forgotten DVDs

         
 

21 November 2017| No Comments     by Sean Chavel

 

I made a promise, Eric. You’re old enough to remember when that meant something.”

Of the detective movies of solving the grisly crime of a young girl’s murder, there are few that are distinguishable in attempting to do more than the obvious. The Pledge (2001) was also one of the last times Jack Nicholson delivered a method performance that was outside of his own persona. He plays Jerry Black, a Nevada police detective whose retirement party is interrupted by the news that a young girl has been brutally murdered and left in the snow. Black is compelled to attend the murder site, then compelled to be the one to inform the grieving parents. Not before long, a mentally disabled and dangerous suspect (Benicio del Toro going full demented) has been arrested and is coaxed into a confession by another detective (Aaron Eckhart as a hotshot), and by inexplicable circumstance, the suspect recovers a gun within the police station. He is shot dead. As soon as possible, the precinct declares it a closed case.

Black, a single man with no family attachments, is supposed to go on a Baja California fishing trip as his retirement hurrah, but has some nagging suspicions that the real suspect is still out there. He is convinced and then obsessed, but when he talks to his former boss with his new collection of clues he gets laughed off (here I don’t actually believe that Black was expecting to not be laughed off, at least a little). He decides to go fishing off of Lake Tahoe instead so he can continue to look into the case. Furthermore, he is compelled to purchase a gas station and mini-mart to make it his stakeout – he believes the real killer will someday pass by and purchase gas, and has reason to believe that this killer is a tall gangly man who drives a long black car. This is how he will spend his retirement.

Then he meets a battered woman named Lori (Robin Wright Penn) with a daughter, and finds himself inviting them to live with him, no strings attached. The woman falls for him, and the daughter warms to him as well. Black has so long been an abstinent detective in his days that it’s a surprise he’s any good at relationships, but he is. Black is a man who hasn’t felt a hug of affection from a woman in a very long time, it’s almost foreign to him. But he’s gentle and non-threatening, and so a good match for Lori and her daughter.

Where Black goes wrong is when he convinces himself the killer has stopped by his gas station, and is making Lori’s daughter his next rape and murder target – that this killer is specifically scoping her out. Where he goes doubly wrong is when he decides to use the girl as bait to catch a killer. Since, you know, that’s wrongful endangerment to an innocent child.

The mystery of the film is whether or not Black is right in any of his assumptions. If he is, his methods are questionable and yet if his inferences are correct then he is setting himself up for being the man who was able to takedown a decades-long rapist and murderer of girls. What “The Pledge” turns out being though, in addition to being a mystery, is  a study of a man who for too long habituated into solving crimes and predisposed into expecting the worse out of human nature, though these instincts get the better of him. “The Pledge” leers into an unlikely conclusion that is a whopping coincidence, but if whopping coincidences are to happen in the movies then at least be grateful to director Sean Penn for milking as much emotional truth as possible, as well as expertly bracing its themes of obsession being its own vortex.

Nicholson being gung ho or traditionally charismatic is nowhere to be found, alas, he is a very internally sad man with an acute need to be the hero who brings justice to the world. He will let this case drive him to losing his composure. Robin Wright, at the time Penn’s wife, has never disappeared into a role like this, and looks like a weathered person who has spent a life surviving terrible abuse. These are great performances. In shorter roles, Harry Dean Stanton, Sam Shepard, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Tom Noonan and Mickey Rourke also do credible work. From beginning to end the movie carries us, for our hearts are pinned to the little girl lost in the snow.

124 Minutes. Rated R.

MYSTERY  / ADULT ORIENTATION / LATE NIGHT BRAIN-TEASER 

Film Cousins: “The Crossing Guard” (1995); “Insomnia” (2002); “Prisoners” (2013); “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017).

Pledge_2001 _Jack-Nicholson_Underrated Flick_Minute

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of flickminute.com, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.

 

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