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Wednesday, June 26, 2002

All work and no play makes Jack an obsessive boy



The Pledge

Rating: * * * *
Director: Sean Penn
Running time: 123 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

Let's give it up for Sean Penn: He's one of those rare actors who can rack up Oscar nominations ("Dead Man Walking," "I Am Sam") as consistently as he bags European festival awards ("Sweet & Lowdown," "Hurlyburly," "The Thin Red Line"). Yet whether he's doing a Hollywood flick or an indie, he almost never takes on a role that isn't demanding, that doesn't challenge him in some way. Note that almost alone among his contemporaries, Penn has never done a "Die Hard" or a Jerry Bruckheimer flick, even though his tough-guy persona would make it a no-brainer for him.

News photo
Jack Nicholson in Sean Penn's "The Pledge"

Penn has integrity as an actor, and for him acting -- inhabiting a character and bringing it alive -- is what it's all about, not running around with an oversize weapon in front of a blue screen. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Penn is directing his own movies. In "The Indian Runner" and "The Crossing Guard," he has displayed an instinctual, perceptive knack for bringing out the nuance of a performance, and for giving his actors room to move. For Penn, directing is no vanity gig. He's got real talent behind the camera, and his third film, "The Pledge," proves this.

"The Pledge," which stars Jack Nicholson as an aging cop who can't let go of one last case, is an intriguing mix of stories. On one level, it's an accomplished thriller, with an explosive beginning and languid middle, building to a very tense and fraught finale. It's also a story of retirement crisis, of what a man does when he no longer has his professional life to drive him; Nicholson's character refuses to let go (a decision he will live to regret). Finally, it's a story on that most old-fashioned concept: honor.

Retiring detective Jerry Black (Nicholson) spends his very last day on the force checking out a homicide, and it's a particularly nasty piece of work: an 8-year-old girl found butchered in remote Nevada woods. It's up to Jerry to break the news to the girl's parents. In the heat of the moment, he makes a promise -- upon his soul's salvation -- to apprehend the murderer.

Fellow detective Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart) thinks he's got his man with a retarded Indian, Toby Jay Wadenah (Benicio del Toro). Jerry, however, smells a scapegoat. He turns up some other leads and finds a disturbing pattern of missing and murdered children in nearby counties, but Jerry's off the force and told in no uncertain terms to butt out. ("Get a life," mutters Stan.) Jerry glares at his ex-commander, Pollack (Sam Shephard), and storms out with one parting shot: "I made a promise, Eric! You're old enough to remember when that used to mean something."

Jerry does indeed let it go, retiring to the lakes region to pursue his hobby of fishing, and kick back and enjoy his retirement. But appearances can be deceiving: This is exactly the epicenter of where all those killings occurred. Jerry also starts to feel protective of Chrissy (Pauline Roberts), the young daughter of a waitress named Lori (Robin Wright Penn), who works at a local diner.

Lori likes Jerry, and a new, happier future looms for the old guy. But that promise continues to nag at him. He thinks he's getting closer to the suspect -- a mysterious "giant" captured in crayon drawings by one of the killed girls -- but the viewer can't be so sure. Is Jerry a dedicated cop, giving it his all, or a deluded obsessive, seeing danger where none exists? The paranoia wafts over every scene like a deadly mist.

Directors who employ Nicholson these days always want the trademark "Jack," the devilish grin, fiery eyes and over-the-top delivery that he hasn't been able to disown since "The Shining." But Penn allows Nicholson to turn in his most restrained, subtle performance in ages, a Jack we've only rarely glimpsed since the '70s. When the parents of the murdered child ask why it is they can't view the body at the morgue, Nicholson replies, "We hardly dare look ourselves." He says this not with menace or any sort of edge, just a sad dignity that bespeaks bitter experience. In his scenes with Lori and her child Chrissy, we see a gentle, fatherly side of Nicholson that's a revelation. Yet throughout the film, he retains a wily, well-concealed sense of guile as he secretly harbors his suspicions and fears.

Penn doesn't waste such a fine performance, placing it at the center of a well-built thriller that teases us with any number of possibilities: Is the killer for real? Is he a product of Jerry's need for a hunt? Or is he even perhaps Jerry himself? Penn strings us along, with any number of exquisitely tense moments, the best coming when little Chrissy wanders off at a crowded flea market.

The real kicker comes with the ending, though, a piece of irony so bitter it's hard to swallow. It leaves you bewildered, sad and not a little spooked, wondering -- like Jerry -- how fate can be so cruel, almost deliberately so. So much of Penn's work -- as an actor and director -- has focused on the idea of redemption. "The Pledge" shows the tragedy of trying for it and coming up short.



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