Screenplay : Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski (based on the book by Friedrich Dürrenmatt)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Jack Nicholson (Jerry Black), Robin Wright Penn (Lori), Aaron Eckhart (Stan Krolak), Sam Shepard (Eric Pollack), Mickey Rourke (Jim Olstand), Benicio Del Toro (Toby Jay Wadenah), Helen Mirren (Doctor)
Sean Penn's The Pledge is about a man named Jerry Black who is absolutely sure that he is right about something, but is never able to prove it. There is a kind of terrible grandeur to Penn's vision of Jerry because Penn ensures that we see he is right, but because he is never able to convince anyone around him, he is literally driven to madness. The last five minutes of the film feature the hand of fate coming down in a way that punishes evil, but also leaves Jerry stranded in his own closed world of assuredness.
Jerry, played with great force and conviction by Jack Nicholson, is a homicide detective in northern Nevada who is within hours of retirement. In fact, he is at his retirement party, less than six hours before he has to turn in his badge and gun, when a call comes through that an eight-year-old girl named Ginny has been found in the snowy woods, raped and with her throat cut. Jerry decides to go along with Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart), his younger, soon-to-be ex-partner.
After this, Jerry does retire from the police force, but he does not retire from trying to find Ginny's killer. It ends up being his duty to inform the parents of their daughter's death, and the mother, who is obviously of great religious conviction, makes Jerry swear on a cross made by their murdered little girl that he promises to find the killer. Not promise to try. He promises to find Ginny's killer.
The police, though, think they already have their man. A mentally challenged Indian (Benicio Del Toro) who was seen fleeing the scene of the crime is quickly brought in. Stan interrogates the stuttering, confused man, and it takes little effort to get him to repeat the phrase, "I killed her." That, along with an eyewitness account of his presence at the crime scene and a past criminal history, including statutory rape of a 16-year-old, seals the Indian's fate.
But, Jerry is not convinced. Something gnaws at him, and despite the fact that he is now a civilian, he continues to pursue the case. He questions the locals of the small town where Ginny lived, including her grandmother (Vanessa Redgrave) with whom she was supposed to be having piano lessons when she was murdered. He also talks to one of Ginny's friends, who tells him something odd. Apparently, days before Ginny's murder, she told her friend that she had "met a giant who gave her porcupines." This doesn't seem to make much sense, but on the wall in the school Jerry finds a picture drawn by Ginny depicting just that: her in the forest, next to a large, black station wagon, meeting with a tall man dressed in black who is handing her what appears to be tiny porcupines.
Jerry is sure that this man in black is Ginny's killer, not the Indian. He pieces together more information, including the death eight years ago of another eight-year-old girl with blond hair in the same area and the disappearance three years ago of another. All of them were wearing red dresses. Jerry takes this information to his police captain (Sam Shepard) and explains his theory that there is a serial killer preying on blond, eight-year-old girls. Of course, the police don't listen. After all, they already have their killer; the case is closed.
But, because Jerry made a promise--the pledge of the title--he does not give up. He moves to a small town that he figures is right in the middle of the triangulation of locations where the three girls disappeared. He buys a service station to keep himself busy (it is also a good method of keeping an eye out for large, black station wagons), and settles down to wait.
In the meantime, he becomes involved with a local waitress named Lori (Robin Wright Penn), who is escaping from an abusive ex-husband. Jerry takes her in, along with her--you guessed it--blond, nine-year-old daughter named Chrissy. The growing familial bonds between Jerry and Lori and Chrissy begin to grow, and on the surface it appears that Jerry's feelings for them are genuine. He plays father-figure to Chrissy, meeting her when she gets off the bus after school and reading her fairy tales before she goes to bed.
But, at the same time, there is a dark subtext to his actions, and you can't shake the feeling that Jerry is using her as bait, for lack of a better word. He keeps his eye on Chrissy, knowing that she is the perfect lure for the serial killer who may or may not exist. He doesn't mention anything about it to Lori, and when Chrissy suddenly wants to buy a red dress, Jerry does nothing to stop it.
The Pledge builds slowly in this manner, taking its time to develop the relationships because it is these that will be most at stake when everything comes together in the end. Jerry's obsession with finding Ginny's killer drives everything he does, but this urge is complicated by the introduction of Lori and Chrissy. Can he love Chrissy like a daughter and still risk her death by silently allowing her to lure in a killer?
In his third directorial effort (his first two were 1991's The Indian Runner and 1995's The Crossing Guard), Sean Penn continues to play out themes of obsession and vengeance. The Pledge is thematically similar to The Crossing Guard, which also starred Jack Nicholson as a man haunted by what he sees to be his mission in life, but improves on that film's weaknesses by focusing on the relationships better. It seems at first that The Pledge is simply meandering narratively, but Penn has a strong sense of where he's going. Much of the impact is in the details, the little actions in life that don't seem like much on their own, but add up to great significance in the end.
The Pledge is likely to frustrate a lot of viewers. It is a story that is designed to frustrate those looking for easy answers and a neat wrap-up. That it takes the general form of a police procedural with a mystery at its core gives the illusion that it is conventional. Make no mistake, it is anything but conventional. The opening scenes of Jerry wandering in the dusty parking lot of his service station, disheveled and muttering gibberish to himself is the first marker that this story will not have a traditional happy ending. Yet, it all comes together in its own way, and in the last moments Penn returns to this opening scene, but this time we see that Jerry is not muttering gibberish, but instead he is repeating over and over a distinct phrase that is the underlying reason for his madness.
©2001 James Kendrick