With “The Pledge,” his third turn in the director’s chair, Sean Penn has cemented his reputation as a voice in bum-out cinema. While his first behind-the-camera effort to not be taken from his own writing, “The Pledge” fits squarely in his dark, moody oeuvre, and with such an imposing atmosphere the film undeniably engages. Unfortunately, its grip is on the mind but not the heart — a problem for a film that clearly aims for some emotional impact.
Since they have no Oscar contenders to speak of (“Pay It Forward”? “Space Cowboys”?), it’s surprising that Warner Bros. didn’t give this adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel at least a one-week qualifying run, given that Academy favorite Jack Nicholson is in the lead. But any recognition Nicholson may have received would not have been a mere product of good will; his turn here as just-retired Reno homicide detective Jerry Black is far more impressive than his heretofore most recent work: his thoroughly unchallenging, if Oscar-winning, performance in “As Good as It Gets”. The Nicholson on display here is shockingly subtle and thus all the more fascinating, especially considering the intense psychological burden of his character. Jerry had made a promise to the mother (Patricia Clarkson) of a brutally murdered girl that he would find her killer no matter what — a promise to which he stays obsessively true even after a suspect had long been captured. Nicholson’s performance is more implosive than explosive, a wise choice that fits a character that had long denied himself any emotional connections or an outlet for his feelings and frustrations.
Penn allows Nicholson and the rest of the story space to build and breathe. His pacing is slow but carefully measured, and feels neither rushed nor draggy. His name-heavy cast benefits from the relaxed timing and increased attention; making a mark in roles of varying size are Aaron Eckhart, Robin Wright Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Helen Mirren, and Vanessa Redgrave. While everyone delivers, the recognition factor of the actors — many of whom appear in only one scene — is a distraction. When Mickey Rourke makes a cameo as a grieving father, one is taken out of the movie by the shock of seeing Rourke playing a teary, sensitive guy, regardless of how well he plays the part.
The deliberate pacing also works toward creating a palpable air of melancholy. But there is a difference between mood and emotion. While one senses Jerry’s torment, one never shares it. The immediacy of Nicholson’s performance is cancelled out by the distance at which Penn observes him — and just about everything else, for that matter. Halfway through the film, Jerry becomes romantically involved with a single mother (Wright Penn), but the audience remains uninvolved in what should have been an emotional linchpin. Penn’s cold detachment is as much to blame as the lack of chemistry between Nicholson and the director’s spouse.
Ultimately, Nicholson, nor anyone, can save the mood-killer of an epilogue. Before the final scene, “The Pledge” hits a haunting, ironic note that is the perfect culmination of all the brooding that preceded it. Yet Penn and writers Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski go one needless step further, hence pushing moodiness into caricature and changing the authentic into the completely bogus. Granted, it’s a logical step, but it’s not one that needed to be spelled out — a move that betrays what had been a work that thrived on keeping things boiling under the surface.