Narrative Feature | 124 mins. | USA
Director: Sean Penn Starring Jack Nicholson, Benicio Del Toro, & Patricia Clarkson.
Why do we go to the movies? Adventure? Sometimes. Entertainment? Many times. Some of us even like some thought-provoking to go along with our popcorn, or at least a movie that stays in our heads after we leave the theatre.
In “The Pledge,” from director Sean Penn, we’re dropped into the world of Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) who amidst a scene of bleak, dried-up desert landscape mutters to himself, “You said, you said…”
Juxtaposed against this washed-up wasteland, we switch to an isolated ice-fishing shack where we’re left wondering if details like a fish on a hook, time on a watch and the type of booze someone drinks are character minutiae or relevant facts that we need to keep track of.
With the film’s good use of metaphorical imagery, we realize Jerry thinks his best detective days are behind him. Or are they? Hours from retirement and desperate to be relevant, Jerry asks to be put on the case of eight-year-old Ginny Larson, who’s found dead on a snow-packed hillside, even if it means working with cops who don’t preserve the crime scene and take the lazy way out by seizing on the first available suspect.
At the crime scene, it’s not his case, but Jerry implores Det. Stan Klovak (Aaron Eckhart) to have Ginny’s coat and dress buttons fingerprinted before they bag her tiny hands and cover her head, a look of horror forever frozen on her face. Are the buttons a pertinent clue?
When first responders who know Ginny, the brutally raped second-grader, balk at notifying her parents, Jerry Black accepts the responsibility; he knows that he’ll have to handle their grief and anger. After collapsing in agonizing sorrow, Ginny’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) demands that Black pledge to find the murderer or risk his soul’s salvation.
After Det. Klovak extracts a murder confession from Toby Wadenah (phenomenally played by Benecio Del Toro), the only suspect, Toby grabs an officer’s service weapon and commits suicide. Violent scene it is, but it’s not gratuitous à la Quentin Tarantino; it’s gritty and real. Does it push Jerry Black over the edge? Anyone with a modicum of introspection would have known the mentally deficient Toby would confess to being the Loch Ness Monster if it would please the police. Jerry Black knew Toby didn’t do it. Is it relevant that he flashes back on this scene?
Looking for a thread of what happened the day little Ginny went missing, Jerry pays a visit to her grandmother (Vanessa Redgrave), who gave her piano lessons, let her eat sweets and would read to Ginny from Hans Christian Andersen: “Whenever a good child dies, an angel of God comes down from heaven and takes the child in his arms, spreads out his great white wings and flies with her over all the places that she loved during her life. And the child carries a large handful of flowers up to God.”
In a rare moment of hope, the film’s primary focus shifts away from finding Ginny’s killer to emphasizing that Jerry is trying to make a life for himself with an abused mother (Robin Wright) and eight-year old Chrissie. We see that Jerry can be a good father; he reads to Chrissie and protects her from questionable religious types. However—when he’s reminded of his pledge—we have to wonder, will he use Chrissie as bait to catch the killer?
While Jack Nicholson is superb in the role of Jerry Black, the supporting characters are extraordinary. It’s a testament to Penn’s directorial abilities that he can attract actors of such caliber as ancillary cast.
On some level, we have great expectations that all of the attention to detail – repeated use of eleven o’clock time check; a fish off the hook; button fingerprints; flashbacks; yellow car on the street, etc. – while they are sometimes effective in supporting a theme of relevance, they are not plot clues. Yes, the details give the characters depth, but most of them don’t seem to serve the plot as well as the theme.
The plot is resolved, but there’s a difference between a chronologically satisfying ending and emotionally satisfying conclusion. While Jerry as the protagonist has pledged to find the girl’s killer, his internal need is to stay relevant; his deepest need is to prove it to himself. The dual emotional stories dilute each other. Finding the girl’s killer is the stronger story and the audience expects it to be resolved; it is, but if you’re not paying close attention at the end of the film, you might miss it.
Posted by Joanna Smith
View more posts by Joanna Smith