The Pledge

Treading emotional and thematic territory similar to that of his two previous directorial outings, Sean Penn delivers an artful downer in "The Pledge." Pic displays evidence of Penn's growing confidence behind the camera. The grim and unpleasant subject matter will not enable WB to attract much more of a public than saw Penn's earlier pictures.

Treading emotional and thematic territory similar to that of his two previous directorial outings, Sean Penn delivers an artful downer in “The Pledge.” Absorbing dramatically and deeply committed to the acting processes of star Jack Nicholson and the raft of impressive players supporting him, pic displays evidence of Penn’s growing confidence and discipline behind the camera. Not that it will matter at the B.O., however: The grim prevailing mood and unpleasant subject matter (the mutilation and murder of a young girl) will not enable Warner Bros. to attract much more of a public than saw Penn’s earlier pictures.

Despite its big-studio affiliation, this determinedly downbeat account of a retired Reno police detective’s protracted search for a murderer is just as individualistic and independent-flavored as Penn’s 1991 debut, “The Indian Runner,” and his 1995 Nicholson starrer “The Crossing Guard.” Curiously, those two films also hinged on the after-effects of killings, with the latter’s action similarly flowing from the death of a 7- or 8-year-old girl.

An advantage enjoyed by “The Pledge” is that it is Penn’s first film not based on his own original screenplay. Source is a 1958 novel by Swiss dramatist and mystery writer Friedrich Durrenmatt, adapted to the contempo Western U.S. by the Polish-American writer Jerzy Kromolowski and his wife, Mary Olson-Kromolowski. While the police procedural structure is familiar, it allows Nicholson’s character to face off with many informants and possible perpetrators (played by top actors mostly in meaty one-scene appearances). What’s more, the moral weight of the detective’s “pledge” to solve the crime, as well as the ultimately ambiguous nature of his methods and the tragic irony of his fate, endows the picture with textures not normally found in straightforward crime dramas.

Thoroughly inhabiting, like Penn’s other films, a working-class setting, tale opens with the retirement party for Jerry Black (Nicholson), by all accounts a first-class detective well liked by his colleagues. During the festivities, however, news comes of a dreadful discovery: the bloody body of a local girl, found by a boy who also glimpsed a man fleeing from the snowy scene in a truck.

It takes the cops almost no time to track down the driver, a retarded Indian with a long police record (Benicio Del Toro, in shoulder-length tresses); he quickly confesses to the crime before shockingly committing suicide. But even as the young lead detective (Aaron Eckhart) is busy congratulating himself for solving Ginny’s murder so handily, Jerry remains unconvinced and extracts the reluctant OK of his department boss (Sam Shepard) to continue investigating what appears to be a closed case.

Although the mostly wintry and rural-based film boasts a subdued, grayish look, Penn has collaborated with ace British lenser Chris Menges to achieve a more concentrated and quietly poetic visual style than he’s previously displayed. Disgusted that none of the younger members of the force have had the guts to inform the dead girl’s parents of her fate, Jerry takes on the sorry task himself, and the resulting scene, set in a large shed filled with turkey chicks, is both dramatically and pictorially startling.

Directorial details accrue to complement Nicholson’s work in creating a telling, full-bodied character portrait: Establishing Jerry’s presence in a room strictly by the smoke emanating from his cigarette (only he and some of the older characters smoke, and Jerry is forced to use an orange peel for an ashtray in one office), and his unstressed, old-school reticence that only women can crack, such as when a female doctor (Helen Mirren) turns the tables on him by pointedly asking if he’s still sexually active.

Having promised Ginny’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) that, “on my soul’s salvation,” he will find the killer, Jerry interviews a school classmate, Ginny’s grandmother (Vanessa Redgrave), the father of a long-missing girl (Mickey Rourke) and a macho cop (Michael O’Keefe) who solved a similar crime, among others. With the further help of one of Ginny’s school paintings, Jerry draws the conclusion that there’s someone out there praying upon blond girls who wear red dresses. At length, Jerry becomes involved with a roadhouse waitress, Lori (Robin Wright Penn), with just such a daughter, buys a remote gas station and house from an old coot (Harry Dean Stanton) and waits for his far-fetched plan to snare the killer to pay off.

A low-key study in obsession, being true to one’s word and belief in one’s gut instincts, pic is also saturated by feelings of paranoia and dread, particularly when Lori’s daughter enters the frame and instantly becomes a potential victim. Drama will fuel the natural fears of all parents in the audience, and no relief is offered. Penn stresses distressing and depressing elements at every turn; if he is to take the next step as a director, and to reflect “real life” as he seems intent upon doing, it would help to begin injecting lighter and contrasting moments to create a more accurate reflection of life’s ever-shifting moods, in the manner of Renoir or his obvious hero, Cassavetes.

In a characterization of much greater restraint and subtlety than many of his recent turns, Nicholson is outstanding as he gradually but tellingly sketches in aspects of a man driven by a mission that outstrips his instincts as a professional lawman and who is utterly surprised, after two failed marriages, to find himself falling into a gratifying relationship with a young single mother and her child. There are none of the verbal outrages and emotional outbursts that have become customary big scenes for the actor; everything is kept on a tight leash, and very effectively so.

While there is a slight element of showing off inherent in the casting of such well-known actors in relatively small supporting roles, the moment-of-recognition factor — oh, there’s Mickey Rourke; man, Benicio Del Toro looks weird — is just that, momentary. Thesps inhabit their roles quickly and do uniformly strong work. Production values for Canadian-shot feature are naturalistic, and the fiddle-inflected score is unobtrusively supportive.

The Pledge

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Morgan Creek Prods./Franchise Pictures presentation of a Clyde Is Hungry Films production. Produced by Michael Fitzgerald, Sean Penn, Elie Samaha. Executive producer, Andrew Stevens. Directed by Sean Penn. Screenplay, Jerzy Kromolowski, Mary Olson-Kromolowski, based on the book by Friedrich Durrenmatt.

Crew

Camera (Alpha Cine color, Deluxe prints; widescreen), Chris Menges; editor, Jay Cassidy; music, Hans Zimmer, Klaus Badelt; production designer, Bill Groom; art director, Helen Jarvis; set decorator, Lesley Bole; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Rob Young; supervising sound editor, John Nutt; associate producer/assistant director, Brian Cook; casting, Don Phillips. Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Jan. 3, 2001. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 124 MIN.

With

Jerry Black - Jack Nicholson Margaret Larsen - Patricia Clarkson Toby Jay Wadenah - Benicio Del Toro Strom - Dale Dickey Stan Krolak - Aaron Eckhart Monash Deputy - Costas Mandylor Doctor - Helen Mirren Gary Jackson - Tom Noonan Duane Larson - Michael O'Keefe Lori - Robin Wright Penn Annalise Hansen - Vanessa Redgrave Chrissy - Pauline Roberts Jim Olstand - Mickey Rourke Eric Pollack - Sam Shepard Helen Jackson - Lois Smith Floyd Cage - Harry Dean Stanton
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more