The Pledge

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The ViewAuckland Review

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Review byMatthew Turner22/10/2001

Four out of five stars
Running time: 123 mins

Powerful, slow-burning drama by Sean Penn, featuring a superb performance by Jack Nicholson.

The one piece of information that will be essential to your enjoyment of The Pledge is that it is emphatically not a typical Hollywood thriller.

That the film will end on a downbeat and depressing note is spelled out from the opening scene, which is also the closing scene, and thus bookends the movie.

Unfortunately, it’s probably that very thing that led to the film under-performing in the States, despite widespread critical acclaim. Hopefully the film will find the more appreciative audience it deserves over here.

Nicholson plays Jerry Black, a grizzled cop on the eve of a somewhat reluctant retirement. As he sleepwalks through his own retirement party, the scenes are intercut with the discovery of the body of a young girl in the snowy wastelands of Nevada.

Nicholson leaves his own party in order to go to the scene of the crime, and shortly afterwards he makes a solemn pledge to the girl’s mother that he will find her killer.

Initially, the police arrest a babbling hobo (Benicio Del Toro in the first of the film’s many cameo appearances), and when he commits suicide, they think they’ve got their man. Jerry’s not convinced, however, and he becomes more and more obsessed with solving the case.

Nicholson’s performance here is remarkable. Penn surely deserves much of the credit for this, as there isn’t a trace of any of the ‘typical’ Nicholson tricks – gone is the trademark leer, the raised eyebrow and the drawl of his voice.

Instead he delivers a performance of quiet intensity, which is so effective that his descent into obsession and madness seems to creep up on both him and us.

In fact this is the second time that Penn and Nicholson have collaborated so effectively (the first was in The Crossing Guard), which is enough to make us hope that they’ll go on to do more films together.

The one element that comes close to spoiling The Pledge is the sheer amount of celebrity cameos, a list that includes the afore-mentioned Benicio Del Toro, as well as Mickey Rourke, Vanessa Redgrave, Harry Dean Stanton and Helen Mirren.

That’s not to say that the performances themselves aren’t impressive, only that it rather over-eggs the pudding. That said, there’s excellent support from both Aaron Eckhart and Sam Shepherd as Jerry’s ex-colleagues, as well as an impressive performance by Robin Wright Penn as the woman Jerry becomes involved with.

As a study of obsession, The Pledge is thematically similar to Vertigo, Hitchcock’s masterpiece, in which the central ‘mystery’ is revealed to be less important than the mental state of the cop on the case.

While The Pledge may not be a masterpiece, it’s still a strong piece of work that marks Penn out as a considerable directorial talent, something that is also reflected in the quality of Nicholson’s performance. Recommended.

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Content updated: 16/09/2019 11:19

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