When an actor directs, audiences have a hard time not reading the actor’s film through their reputation. Sean Penn is probably better known for his Jeff Spicoli, marriage to Madonna, and anti-Hollywood attitude than helming his own films. And indeed, his directorial sojourns thus far, “Indian Runner” and “The Crossing Guard,” almost reek of the same rawness one gathers from Penn, with their plaintively brutal takes on what happens when everything goes to hell. “The Pledge,” his latest directorial effort, is, at its most essential level, a simple crime-drama, a skillfully focused look at a man who, in the throes of a crisis, loses himself to himself. But Penn’s simple, stubborn insistence in carefully exploring a man adrift in hopelessness makes “The Pledge” a signal that Penn’s movies are finally capable of transcending the celebrity-hood his own life has garnered.
In the driver’s seat of “The Pledge,” Penn has placed Jack Nicholson, offering himself up to us as Jerry Black, a decent-minded, retiring Reno, Nevada, homicide detective who’s spent his life doing his job right. Recently, we’ve seen a spate of older actors being asked by younger directors to push out of their Hollywood actor-isms to more viscerally real performances. Some have answered the call masterfully-i.e., Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream-while others have had a harder time putting down the practiced posturing-i.e., Michæl Douglas in Traffic. Nicholson does so masterfully, as we find Black on a fateful last day on the job being warmly toasted into retirement with a surprise party and a gift of a trip to Mexico where he can finally fish away his golden years.
Fate, though, won’t have it so easy, as news of the violent murder of a young girl reaches the party. Rather than let the younger detective who will replace him (Aaron Eckhart as Stan Krolak) take over the case, Black instead decides to make the trip to the death-site himself. All along the way, Penn graphically immerses us in the quiet moodiness of Black’s world; from the silent snow-scapes to the bloody crime-scene, we are given over to the starkly lonely place Black himself inhabits. When Black, in a beauty of a shot in the middle of a barn full of turkeys, tells the little girl’s parents their daughter is dead, he find himself desperately soon after pledging to the mother that he’ll find her killer.
A young local boy who happened on the crime-scene, it turns out, has an ID on a mentally disturbed Indian (Toby Wadenah played by Benicio Del Toro). But when Krolak brings Wadenah in for questioning, he uses an artful combination of exploitation and homoeroticism to force a confession out of a man who, although he has a criminal record, seems more dim than deadly. In one of cinema’s more explosively bloody scenes, Wadenah proceeds to blow his brains out being taken into custody; is the killer now dead or instead misidentified? Black’s promise forces him away from his South American getaway, half-way out of retirement and combing the countryside for the real guy who, as it turns out, may be a serial killer of the area’s young girls.
For the bulk of “The Pledge”‘s belly, we take a nomadic tour with Black of the diverse lives he has spent his life walking in and out of. Searching for the real murderer, Black visits a group of people who succinctly reveal the isolated worlds they each inhabit. To his credit, Penn has for this trip assembled a dazzlingly rare collective of stellar actors in small roles; Mickey Rourke blazingly brings to life the violent pain of the father of another young victim, Vanessa Redgrave provides a touchingly preoccupied peek into another side of grief, and Robin Wright Penn does a surprisingly adept embodiment of a white-trash waitress and battered woman named Lori. With this last, Black makes a connection, and in an attempt to simultaneously settle down and continue his hunt, ends up taking her and her younger daughter into the home/gas-station he’s bought to watch out for the killer.
Although basing movies on books has often provides films with more sophisticated and subtle plot-moves than most Hollywood blockbusters, that “The Pledge” is based on Swiss author Friedrich Durrenmatt’s novel doesn’t save it from being loaded with coincidences. The twists and turns Black follows to finally get as close as he can to discovering the identity of the murderer range from the hard-to-believe to the almost silly. When Black essentially ends up using Lori’s daughter as bait once the two have started their own romantic relationship, it’s virtually impossible to believe of anyone, let alone a cop, even one on his way to mental instability. Luckily, Penn’s attentive directing and Nicholson’s layered acting render “The Pledge”‘s occasionally questionable story permutations of secondary interest to enjoying this emotionally powerful film of rare and grave subtlety.