The Pledge (2001)

THE PLEDGE is the second movie of the week-- well, the second movie 
of *last* week-- directed by either a current or former husband of 
Madonna.  Taking his third turn behind the camera, Sean Penn helms 
this ably acted and more than slightly surreal murder-mystery slash 
character study slash Jack Nicholson vehicle slash big-name cameo-
fest.  Everyone from Mickey Rourke (!) to Helen Mirren (!!) appears 
here, as does current film fixture Benicio Del Toro, disguised this 
time behind dark eyes and a darker mane as a mumbling, mentally-not-
all-there American Indian.  (And whose impressionability is depicted 
in a disturbingly realistic interrogation-room coercion.)

The simply sketched but increasingly complex story casts the World's 
Greatest Lakers' Fan as a just-retired Reno detective who makes a 
promise to the mother of a just-murdered little girl.  He'll catch 
the killer, so help his soul.  (Religious devotion is one of the mo-
vie's more curious themes, as is the fairy-tale flavor of the mur-
der.)  Days later, the apparent suspect's been caught (by someone 
else) and Saint Nick's about to board a plane to Mexico... but some-
thing stops him.  The wrong one, he wonders?  

Thus begins a journey-- to the "high country," to the mountain lakes 
that Jack's character so loves to fish in, and, not so coincidental-
ly, not far from where a couple other little girls have disappeared 
over the years.  Time begins passing, but even his most seemingly 
innocuous of retirement activities are affected by that still-remem-
bered pledge.  Activities both conscious and *not*-so-conscious...  
And, frankly, to say anything else about story specifics would be 
criminal.  Plus, the whole thing *opens* with a couple teaser shots 
of Jack looking visibly distraught, so you *know* it ain't gonna 
have a happy ending.  (Post-screening discussion topic:  just what 
kind of ending *is* it?  Happy?  Sad??  Both???)

For all the exciting names that appear in the title credits-- and, 
admittedly, who have a far smaller amount of collective screen time 
than expected-- this is Jack's show.  It's his time to again shine 
and the veteran actor jolts us right at the start, by looking 10 or  
15 years older than we last saw him.  He's lumpy, sagging, and bran-
dishing a thick, half-menacing moustache.  Around him hangs a dis-
concerting air of hollowness; as if his character's more shell than 
person.  (Watch his eyes, though, as they twinkle and flash and show 
more and more fire as we go.)  He's an empty character, at first, in 
a movie that, too, is empty at first.

Despite a host of other, splendid accoutrements-- from Penn's scenic 
and surreal directorial touches, a generous amount of character de-
tail, and more seasoned acting chops than an Oscar-night pig-cook-
in', the lot of the film feels kinda empty.  Maybe not glaringly so.   
Maybe not in a draggy way.  But lacking just enough of A Certain 
Something(tm) that much of the movie feels more like an acting exer-
cise than a compelling drama.  (Of course, there *are* exceptionally 
engaging flourishes, here and there.  I was blown away by a short, 
simple sequence on a playground, shot in close-up, of Jack asking a  
child about her recently deceased friend.  Wow, what a contrast be-
tween those faces!)

Now with all that said and done and made fun of, the *last* third of 
the film is a bonafide gas.  The necessary screws have both planted 
*and* tightened enough that the story suddenly becomes edge-of-the-
seat compelling.  We're talkin' the stuff of "oh sh*t!"  Nor do we  
necessarily even see it coming, 'cause the methodically unfolding e-
vents are so deceptively understated.  (Unless you spot some of the 
glaring foreshadowing, as I did...)  And when the dust settles and 
title credits roll and we finally understand what Jack was muttering 
about at the very beginning, you can spend a subsequent hour discus-
sing (read: debating) what just happened, how the *Hell* it happen-
ed, and could it have happened any differently? 

Oh, and as you critique, you'll probably scratch your head at a cou-
ple late lines of dialogue, where Jack's character's called a drunk, 
and wonder if one whale of a subplot was excised during either the 
scripting or the filming.  And while we're at it, could we *please* 
call a moratorium on disbelieving movie characters, usually superi-
ors, who so quickly dismiss someone, despite the clearly compelling 
evidence they're trying to present.  Give us a break, at least for a 
little while, okay?  With Patricia Clarkson, Aaron Eckhart, Tom No-
onan, Michael O' Keefe, Robin Wright Penn, Vanessa Redgrave, Sam 
Shepard, and Harry Dean Stanton.  Screenplay by Jerzy Kromolowski 
and Mary Olson-Kromolowski, from the novel by Friedrich Durrenmatt. 
(Rated "R"/124 min.)
Grade: B

Copyright 2000 by Michael J. Legeros
Movie Hell is a trademark of Michael J. Legeros

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Copyright 2001 by Michael J. Legeros -Movie Hell™ is a trademark of Michael J. Legeros