Ferdy on Films, etc.

Film reviews and commentary, random thoughts on the world around us, blatant promotion of favorite charities, and other ponderables.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Pledge (2001)
Director: Sean Penn

Failure is a part of life--a painful part, to be sure, but usually not fatal. Sometimes it comes from overreaching our abilities, sometimes from making promises we can't keep. But what if our failure is an offense against God? Does that kind of failure inflict a mortal wound, the literal or proverbial bolt of lightning sent to strike us down at this ultimate offense? That is a question that is central to Sean Penn's fascinating third film in the director's chair--an actor's paradise and an audience's troubling fever dream.

When we first meet Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson), he is mumbling and stumbling about a dusty gas station, his scabbed and weathered face turned upward. Crows are crossing the placid sky and slowly merge with his face. Next we see a fish emerging from a hole in the ice and a hand fumbling for a bottle of Glenfiddich in the supports of the tent placed over the hole. Then we see an SUV drive into a city--Reno, NV--and Black emerge from it with his catch in a cooler and pass through the doors of the Reno Police Department building and into his office in the homicide division. His long-time secretary tells him she has already unplugged his refrigerator and packed everything but his pictures, and then begins to rattle off his appointments for his final day at work, oblivious to the fact that he has just recited them out loud to her. There will be a retirement party for him at the Luau. Jerry looks out his window and down at the sidewalk far below. An old person in a walker is being guided by an aide. It unsettles him.

At the party, Jerry looks dizzy and disoriented among the colored lights and glowing tiki torches. As he is delivering a farewell speech, word comes of a murder--a young girl has been found in the woods with her throat brutally slashed. Jerry decides he wants to go out on the job one more time. The victim's parents are removing a dead turkey from their vast flock when Jerry shows up and delivers the news. Mrs. Larsen (Patricia Clarkson), a religious woman, asks Jerry to swear on the cross her daughter made that he will find her killer or risk his eternal salvation. A very reluctant Jerry gives her his word that he will.

The Reno police think they have the killer, a retarded Indian named Toby (Benecio del Toro). Jerry isn't convinced, even after Toby confesses and commits suicide by grabbing an officer's gun and shooting himself. Although retired, Jerry starts investigating and sets up an elaborate sting operation that entails him using as bait the little girl of a barmaid (Robin Wright Penn) who has come to him for protection against her abusive ex-husband and ended up moving in with him at the gas station he has purchased. One day, the little girl gives him the news he has been waiting for for well over a year--she has been talking with a man who calls himself The Wizard and has arranged to meet him in the park the next day.

Penn populates his film with small, jewel-like cameos from the likes of Helen Mirren, Lois Smith, Harry Dean Stanton, Mickey Rourke, and Sam Shepard. Their contributions give heft to the proceedings without overwhelming it. Penn was most in danger by casting Nicholson as the lead. Would we have another raving lunatic performance from the king of the temper tantrum? Against all expectations, Nicholson pays Jerry with almost too much subtlety. Descriptions of him being a drunk and crazy don't ring true, but we have the benefit of seeing that his hunches could be right and that the pledge he has made is a very heavy one for him, one that could cause him to betray the trust of a mother and child to catch a serial killer. It matters not whether we in the audience believe in God; what is important is that Jerry, as a newly retired person who dealt with death every working day of his life, sees the shadow of his own death nearing. And as they say, there are no atheists in fox holes.

This film, shot by Chris Menges, is absolutely gorgeous. The snow-covered mountains of Nevada and beautiful mountain lakes could make one believe in a divine presence all by themselves. Penn stacks the deck by populating the small town Jerry adopts as home with religious folk whose faith impresses Jerry and us as being sincere. Penn also chooses a lot of bird's eye shots to suggest a heavenly presence who is watching the proceedings. There is a whiff of a Greek tragedy about this film, with Jerry's hubris in making such a grim pledge receiving its just punishment.

The Pledge is not an easy film to watch, and it's not a happy one. But it does have an interesting morality tale to tell and cautions all of us that sometimes failure is simply not an option. l


  • At 10:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    this definitely a wonderful piece of writing. kudos!


  • At 10:49 AM, Blogger Marilyn said…

    Thanks, Giuliano. When I first saw this film and tried to discuss it at NYT, I was told that the religious implications of the film were uninteresting and unimportant. I guess I got the last word!

  • At 10:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    uninteresting and unimportant? i must have missed that piece of nonsense. Believe me, mar, the piece is very, very good. i loved it.


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