The Pledge

"I will find who did it. I promise it."

Sean Penn, apparently, wants to be Terrence Malick. How unwise. In The Pledge, which marks his third time in the director’s chair, Penn puts up a decent fight but is defeated by his constant desire to be artsy, to get as far away from the mainstream as possible. I usually appreciate efforts by directors to be unconventional, but not when they are this self-conscious; you can almost feel Penn trying to win the favor of the “Cahiers du Cinema” crowd. It’s a shame, because this interesting story and Penn’s undeniable talent are terrible things to waste.

Jack Nicholson, in an uncharacteristic role, plays Jerry Black, a veteran police detective who decides to leave his retirement party and go along with a unit investigating the rape and murder of a very young girl. In a spectacular shot, he has to wade through a barn full of geese (or chickens, or something; all I really remember is seeing a lot of birds) to give the parents the bad news. The next thing he knows, he’s swearing on the cross that he will find out who committed the crime and bring the bastard to justice.

When the man believed to be the culprit kills himself, the police want to close the case. But Black thinks they had the wrong man. Since Black is technically retired, he can’t do much in his official capacity, which leaves him in a tight spot as far as his promise goes. He’s not about to give up however: he buys a gas station, settles in there with his new girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn), an escapee from an abusive relationship, and begins to set a trap for the man he thinks is the real killer based on the drawings his last victim made before she died.

It’s not hard to imagine Penn in the editing room giving directives like “Every other shot must be a shot of flying birds! No exceptions!” If he did give such an order, it was followed to the letter. Indeed, The Pledge tries so hard to be a “mood piece” that it just about self-destructs in the process. The basic story isn’t strong enough to support the layer after layer of pretentious, non sequitur stuff (there’s just no other word for it; trust me, I looked) that Penn piles on. The film’s philosophical undertones should have remained just that — undertones — instead of being dragged kicking and screaming to the front lines.

I also had a problem with the ending, which cheapens The Pledge‘s theme of obsession by giving Black’s character credibility and making the story little more than a twist on the Serial Killer Movie. The irony involved in the plot twist adds some ambiguity, I suppose, but this conclusion was still the wrong move, making Penn’s pretensions all the more inappropriate. If you’re gonna have the cajones to claim that your movie is some sort of intricate existentialist meditation, you damn well better have the script to back it up.

Alas, it was over for this effort before it began. Penn is certainly not without promise as a director, though I prefer to see him in front of the camera, and Nicholson — the man, the myth, the legend — can keep my interest even while sludging through this Malick-y mess. The Pledge and its director should have taken a hint from Sam Raimi, an expert on taking genre stories and turning them into crafty, entertaining little pieces of cinema. And in Raimi’s films, there is nary a shot of birds flying.

-- Eugene Novikov

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