Jack Nicholson, Benicio Del Toro, Aaron Eckhart, Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, Robin Wright Penn, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, Sam Shepard…What is this, the list of courtside-seat ticket holders at a recent L.A. Lakers games? No, it’s the cast of Sean Penn’s The Pledge, a mood-deadening study of what happens when a man’s attempt to keep his word turns into a pursuit of his own sanity. Despite its intimate scope and focus on the everyday lives of anonymous Americans, The Pledge, with its conga line of famous faces, feels like a Gloomy Gus version of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. By the time Harry Dean Stanton turns up to deliver all of five lines as a gas-station attendant, you’re thinking Penn won’t be happy until Phil Silvers swoops in on a biplane.
Nicholson plays Jerry Black, a Reno homicide investigator who skips out on his own retirement party to cover one last crime scene. The rape-murder victim is a little girl, and when Nicholson visits her parents to break the news, the mother forces him to vow—“on your soul’s salvation”—to bring the killer to justice. Black’s young colleague (Eckhart) extracts a fishy confession from a mentally defective suspect (Del Toro), and the case is officially closed, but little details about it continue to nag at Black even after he’s cleaned out his desk. His former colleagues won’t listen to him—they think he just can’t let go of his job—and so working on his own he gathers evidence showing that a serial killer may be loose in the mountains of Nevada. Buying a gas station located within the killer’s stomping grounds, he turns it into an aerie from which he keeps an eye on the area’s inhabitants. His search brings him into contact with Lori (Ms. Penn), a single mother whose little girl fits the profile of the previous victims, and when Black sets up house with mother and daughter, it’s a situation that should bring out the best in any man. But he can’t forget the promise he once made, and eventually he becomes so consumed by his quest that he’s willing to do anything to lure the killer out.
On the most literal level Jerry Black really is just a guy who’s not ready for pasture, but Penn seems uninterested in exploring the emotional meaning of his dilemma. The pledge itself comes off like a plot convenience because we never understand why this seasoned investigator, who’s probably encountered every form of survivor’s grief imaginable, would make such a promise in the first place. Does the fact that the mother makes him swear over a cross mean something special to him? Is his promise only the excuse that his subconscious needs in order to justify his one-man investigation? We never find out because the movie, a false exercise in ambiguity, deliberately muddies these issues, and instead keeps teasing us with the possibility of a showdown with the killer. It’s bad enough that future generations will probably regard our culture’s fixation on serial killers with a mixture of wonder and scorn, but in the meantime we’re forced to sit through yet more flash shots of mangled bodies, tiresome crime-scene shop-talk, and tedious red herrings. If Penn and his screenwriters really wanted to make a character study, why did they cast it in the mold of a garden-variety serial killer flick?
The penitential heaviness that occasionally afflicts Penn’s acting has thoroughly infected his work as a director, and The Pledge is so logy and doom-laden that watching it feels like a hike through waist-deep snow. Incapable of laying bare his protagonist’s mental landscape, Penn dwells on external bits of business so inarticulate that they come across like cinematic grunts: a malfunctioning credit card machine, a cigarette that’s stubbed out in an orange peel. Cinematographer Chris Menges (Local Hero, The Boxer) has done some lovely work over the years, but here he indulges in arty rhinestones—mostly a lot of out-of-focus and slow-motion shots—that lost their shine in the Sixties.
Nicholson’s performance is stripped of any vanity—he’s not afraid to let the camera rest on his sagging features—but he doesn’t come close to conveying the contours of Black’s obsession. This man who once held audiences in the palm of his hand lost the ability to draw us to him a long, long time ago, and in scenes such as the one where Black reads “Thumbelina” to Lori’s daughter, he throws away his chances to make us forget the aging roue that haunts the Oscars every year. Robin Wright Penn comes off best of the featured players: Lori, with her chipped front tooth and nicked-up features, is a woman we’ve crossed paths with in the supermarket a thousand times. But the movie’s one moment of genuine feeling comes through in a brief scene with Mickey Rourke. When Rourke, as a grieving father, unexpectedly bursts into tears, it knocks The Pledge off its uncommitted axis, and in a flash you remember all the good that a little humanity can do for a movie.
– Tom Block