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The Pledge
2001 - R - 123 Mins.
Director: Sean Penn
Producer: Elie Samaha, Michael Fitzgerald, Sean Penn
Written By: Jerzy Kromolowski, Mary Olson-Kromolowski, Sean Penn
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright, Benicio Del Toro, Michael O\'Keefe, Sam Shepard
Review by: David Trier
Jack Nicholson was suffering from accute Has-been-itis, the same disease Al Pacino had, the one that attacks the "brilliant cells" in an actor's middle-age and forces them to do caricatures of themselves in mediocre films. But the disease can usually be shaken when the actor is officially "old" (as was the case with Pacino) and Jack has returned to the screen triumphantly. DeNiro is still in critical condition.

Having just retired from an excellent career on the police force of whatever town is always snowy, Detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) leaves his farewell party took at one last crime scene. Horrified that someone could rape and mutilate a little girl, he can't resist some investigating. When the victim's mother (Patricia Clarkson) corners Black into promising he'll find the killer, he does everything he can. But at the same time, he is trying to build a retired fishing life for himself to subdue the bouts of forgetfulness and confusion old age brings. A mentally handicapped Native American (Benicio del Toro) is coerced into confession by his hotshop cop friend (Aaron Eckhart), but Black discovers there had been too many similar murders in the area over the years for the case to be that simple. He enlists the advice of a child psychologist (Helen Mirren) who's more interested in psychoanalyzing him and he picks the brains of a previous victim's father (Mickey Rourke) who's just very very sad. But when he establishes a romance with a local bartender (Robin Wright Penn), her conveniently aged daughter may be the key to finally cracking the case.

This film has an amazing cast, all of whom contribute handsomely. Jack's performance is patient and subtle, good straightforward acting, low on song-and-dance theatrics. He makes Black into a genuine multi-layered human being. Robin Wright Penn is made up to be pretty damn ugly in the film, but her grace in front of the camera shines through. Aaron Eckhart, who played the redneck husband in Nurse Betty and who we will definitely be seeing more of in future films, delivers a believable performance. His character is far from likeable, more comfortable coercing a mentally handicapped person into confession than doing what's right, but at the same time it's easy to see why he thinks Black has just lost his mind. Benicio del Toro, now a big star, is a strange casting choice for the small retarded Indian part, but the actor's ancient technique of mumbling is always worth watching. The most surprising tour de force is by Mickey Rourke as a grieving father. His scene is exceptional and completely disproves the theory that he should only be playing greasy creeps.

The film drags a bit as it tries to be two movies at the same time, a detective thriller and a stages-of-life drama. Both are interesting, but unevenly matched. Some of the characters don't make a whole lot of sense, particularly the child psychologist. The film likes to play tricks on the audience, making it unclear if something is in Black's imagination or really going on. At times this is quite thrilling, but occasionally it is just distracting. The plot itself is a little convoluted. The killer he's been trying to prove exists ultimately targets the little girl of the woman he's involved with and that's awfully convenient. But even the approach to Jack and Robin's relationship is unusual, far from sexy but rather profound. The scene where he actually makes the pledge is more peculiar than it is moving, in my opinion, and doesn't succesfully justify him keeping his word. Personally, I loved the ending, but it's the kind of ending you either respect tremendously or resent entirely. And there are some crimescene photos the more squeamish moviegoer might want to avert their eyes from that get some unnecessarily indulgent screen time (and this is from a big horror fan).

Sean Penn has made himself an interesting directing career of making slow, well-acted character studies cast with all his buddies (and his wife). He seems to be constantly aware of his audience more than he loves them, and a few times during this film he does the equivalent of giving the audience the finger. I left the theater only mildly satisfied, but the more I thought about it, the more impressed I became. The Pledge is reminiscent of the detective stories from a few decades ago, before the invasion of the "hot alternative soundtrack". Being introduced to an anti-hero just as he's hanging up his holster has been done and redone but makes a compulsive moviegoer smile every time.
Movie Guru Rating
An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater.
  4 out of 5 stars

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