(director: Sean Penn; screenwriters: Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt (book)/Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski; cinematographer: Chris Menges; editor: Jay Cassidy; cast: Jack Nicholson (Jerry Black), Benicio Del Toro (Toby Jay Wadenah), Aaron Eckhart (Stan Krolak), Helen Mirren (Doctor), Robin Wright Penn (Lori), Vanessa Redgrave (Annalise Hansen), Patricia Clarkson (Margaret Larsen), Mickey Rourke (Jim Olstand), Sam Shepard (Eric Pollack), Tom Noonan (Gary Jackson), Michael O’Keefe (Duane Larson), Harry Dean Stanton (Floyd Cage), Pauline Roberts (Chrissy), Michael O’Keefe (Policeman); Runtime: 124; Warner Brothers; 2001)
“Penn has directed a superb film…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“The Pledge,” adapted from a novel by the Swiss writer Friedrich D├╝rrenmattis, is the third and the finest of the three films Sean Penn (The Crossing Guard/The Indian Runner) has directed. It’s a grim tale filled with nostalgia, tenderness, and grief. Jack Nicholson gives a subdued and arguably his best performance ever as a sixtysomething, retired Reno, Nevada, homicide detective, Jerry Black, who aims to go fishing for his retirement but instead continues working a case started on his last day on the job. It’s a grisly child rape-murder mutilation case, and he continues on it because he promised the victim’s mother that he would get the killer. He swears this on a cross the child victim made. The only reason he goes out to the parents’ turkey farm to tell them the tragic news, even though he is about to retire, is because no one else in the sheriff’s department feels comfortable enough to do it.

The film is set just outside Reno, in the beautiful mountain towns where poverty and harsh living conditions loom for those who care to see beyond what the tourist sees as idyllic. The story revolves around a police investigation to get the killer of the little 7-year-old Ginny Larsen, but the investigation quickly closes when the snowmobiler youngster who found the body tips the police off about an agitated Indian (Benicio Del Toro) he spotted in the crime vicinity and the Indian when brought in for questioning confesses and then kills himself. The film then becomes more about the aging loner detective and about him trying to maintain his psychological composure, as he has a strong hunch that the Indian wasn’t the killer; but his interest in the case is frowned upon by his fellow officers who moments ago were praising him to the skies for his career work at his retirement reception. His successor is Stan (Aaron Eckhart), who is a brash young man and of a totally different generation; he’s aggressive in getting a confession, seducing the Indian to confess by sidling up to him and cajoling him to tell him what he wants to hear. Stan once thought Jerry was a great cop and looked up to him, but now along with the police chief, Eric (Shepard), thinks Jerry has lost it and is just a drunken clown who can’t handle not working and being in on the macho action.

Jerry is so obsessed with this murder, that he decides to dedicate himself to catching the killer on his own without help from his former colleagues. He begins by locating a policeman in another district and finds that the little girl victims all fit the same profile. He takes a drawing that Ginny made of a giant giving her presents, that was hung in her school, as he believes this drawing clearly shows the killer as a tall white male, driving a station wagon, and he is luring her by offering the girl presents. To reaffirm what the drawing might mean he visits a psychologist (Mirren), who can only speak of the drawing in hypothetical terms. But she spots that since his retirement, he’s going bonkers because something is weighing heavily on his mind: as he hears voices, nervously chain-smokes, and is sweating a lot because he’s in an agitated state. He also visits a father (Rourke) whose daughter has been missing for 3 years, and reconfirms his own grief over the victim and that all the victims wore a red dress.

On a whim he buys a mountain gas station from Floyd (Stanton), and uses that as his place to observe the comings-and-goings of any suspects. In town he befriends a battered waitress, Lori (Robin Wright Penn, the director’s wife), who has an 8-year-old daughter named Chrissy. She also has a restraining order against her husband and when he batters her again, she moves in with the pensive and sensitive Jerry. The arrangement blossoms as Jerry enjoys taking care of her and acting fatherly to the little girl. But when Jerry’s suspicions lead him to believe that a smiling part-time minister and snow-plow driver, Gary Jackson, is his man, he sets a trap for him using Chrissy as bait; this obsession with the case leads to Jerry’s downfall.

Penn is to be commended for his nuanced shooting of the film and his confident way of telling the story through a retired detective who is becoming mentally unbalanced and needs this case to become whole again, and in the ambiguous ending that makes the viewer resolve the story as he thinks it should be. The last shot of Nicholson mumbling to himself in the already gone to seed filling station, is a striking reminder of how an artist (anyone who is intuitive in their job) can become so obsessed by his work that he might lose sight of his own life. Penn has directed a superb film, that is interestingly photographed and well-acted. It’s one of the better murder mystery stories made, one that is more a psychological study of the detective than of the killer. It is more pertinent as a character study than as a murder investigation.