***½/**** Image A- Sound A-
starring Jack Nicholson, Benicio Del Toro, Aaron Eckhart, Helen Mirren
screenplay by Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson Kromolowski, based on the novel by Fredrich Durrenmatt
directed by Sean Penn
by Bill Chambers The Pledge implicates anyone and everyone, especially its viewers. There are critics who like to remain situated on a high horse looking down at the movies: that group loathed The Pledge, because it knocked the saddle out from under them. Their reviews are full of defensive posturing, refusing to deal with the film head-on, denouncing exploitation before deciding on whom or what is being exploited. It's easy to call The Pledge "sick," for instance, because of the moment where Jack Nicholson's Jerry Black sifts through crime-scene photographs of slain children and, because the camera is over his shoulder, so do we.
This detail of Jerry's investigation is not so expository that it even 'needs' to be there, but by removing it, Americans are let off the hook yet again. In a piece on The Sweet Hereafter, Canadian writer Geoff Pevere said something about his homeland that I believe applies to many European and Asian territories as well: "American films are about action, Canadian films are about consequences." The Elvis Presley starrer Viva Las Vegas climaxes with The King racing in the Vegas Grand Prix and leaving nothing but carnage in his wake (literally, vehicles explode)--any subsequent expression of concern for a driver other than Elvis is unsettlingly vague. That was 1964. In 2001, Michael Bay shot the aftermath of "The Day That Will Live In Infamy" using a lens that blurred the gory details, ostensibly for the aesthetic purpose of disorientation. Remember, it also helped win Pearl Harbor the vaunted PG-13 rating despite an endless and unobscured depiction of soldiers blasting ammo at everything in sight and abstract 'stuff' getting blown to bits.
The Pledge, Sean Penn's third directorial effort, exists in the wake of violence. The effect of the abovementioned picture show is galvanizing: in commanding audiences to flinch in disgust, Penn all but checks for the pulse of the desensitized United States, and the surrounding statement, apropos our cinematic conditioning, is even bolder. Those forensic documents predict the jeopardy of successive characters, and while we pre-emptively pity the little blonde girl who's later integrated into the story as Jerry's quasi-stepdaughter, we'd leave the theatre or turn off the television unsatisfied if she never stepped in harm's way. Thus the very thing we dread becomes the very thing we anticipate--another way of saying "look forward to." Penn's inferior The Crossing Guard grappled, like this film, with the parental anxiety of losing a child; The Pledge, however, comments on the hypocrisy of dealing with it through filmmaking, where suffering aims, however incidentally, to entertain.
It's more useful to term The Pledge confrontational rather than exploitative. We are reminded that the suspense thriller has evolved into a pretty dubious genre, with The Silence of the Lambs and Seven being its most mainstream progenitors. They seem to offend people less than the comparatively inexplicit The Pledge, and I'm sure that's because Penn's film, though not amoral, has no moral centre--no one slapping Evil's wrist on our behalf. (A couple of cheap, if precise, shots at religion and cops don't count.) Again, we're punished for hoping that Jerry fulfills his godly promise to find a serial murderer of prepubescent girls, which we gradually realize he cannot do without taking leave of his conscience. Compounding the ire of those unacquainted with his Seventies performances is Nicholson in an antiheroic role that keeps his eyebrows in check and subdues, nay, subverts, his perfected, soothing incorrigibility. One succumbs to him regardless, but without the devilish Jack-isms, there's little to make our empathy for Jerry fun and persona-driven.
Chris Menges's Panavision cinematography suggests that of a Michael Mann film--there's something in the warm portrayal of cool colours, and in the distancing deployment of long lenses. Too, The Pledge has an intertextual relationship with Mann's Manhunter in the casting of Tom Noonan as "a giant." (If you saw him play the similarly storybook-named "The Tooth Fairy" for Mann, your skin will start to crawl the second he materializes on screen here.) The stylistic accomplishments of The Pledge, including the fragile score by Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt and editor Jay Cassidy's successful cross-cutting techniques, amount to something Mann would, one presumes, be proud to have on his resume. The Pledge marks the moment that the director of The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard goes from being a tortured soul to being a tortured artist.
The Pledge haunted me for weeks after I saw it at a barren multiplex last winter, and my second viewing--on DVD--did not disappoint, the disc's no-frills status notwithstanding. The 2.35:1, 16x9-enhanced video transfer is occasionally soft-focused by the film's design; colour delineation and shadow detail are excellent. The subtle Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is musically enveloping and its bass is rich towards the end. Extras are limited to cast and crew bios and the engrossing theatrical trailer (presented in anamorphically-enhanced widescreen). If you give more weight to the feature than you do to special content, then I highly endorse Warner's DVD release of The Pledge. Originally published: June 24, 2001.