Penn is Mightier

Jacks back: Reno homicide detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) searches for a killer, who might exist only in his mind.

For his first film as director, 1991's The Indian Runner, Sean Penn chose as his source material Bruce Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman," off Nebraska. It was a perfect song, and it spawned a nearly perfect movie; Penn, writing his own screenplay about two brothers--one good, one bad, each inseparable from the other--fleshed out the pain and pride of Springsteen's original without stooping to the sort of shameless melodrama Hollywood sells like T-shirts at a tourist's gift shop. Penn's characters suffer and ache without ever finding release or salvation. His films deal with the crushing weight of unresolved pain, and his actors always look as though they're being stepped on by an unseen giant. They speak in hushed tones, in whispers about to become sobs, and they look like they've spent hours alternately crying and sleeping. In The Crossing Guard, his 1995 film starring Jack Nicholson as a man out to avenge the death of a daughter killed by a drunken driver, even the shouting seems muted. Penn's movies are like shrieks into a pillow.

As Penn said last Sunday in The New York Times, he makes movies in which no good deed shall go unpunished; even the innocent will suffer, no matter how noble their intentions. Children are brutally murdered, and those who commit themselves to finding justice rarely stumble across satisfaction. There are only varying degrees of pain in Penn's films, which make them as real as your own skin.

The Pledge is, in a way, the final installment in what might be considered the Trilogy of Anguish--final, only because there's no place to go but up from here. This time around, the suffering hero is a Reno, Nevada, homicide detective named Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) who, when we first see him, is howling mad, drunk and muttering to himself in the dust-swept ass-end of nowhere; he is a man at the end of the end--or, perhaps, at the start of a new beginning. Moments later, he is on a frozen lake, ice-fishing with only a bottle of Glenfiddich as his company. The jarring contrast of the settings--one arid, one frozen--only heightens the obvious: No matter where he is, Jerry remains all alone.


The Pledge

Jerry is hours away from retirement, from ending a career as a "great cop," in the words of fellow detective Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart). Jerry wants only to settle on the pond, where he can fish forever, but can't bring himself to even finish packing his office. He sits surrounded by pictures of himself as a young man--all smiles, all promise--but he stares at the black-and-white memories like a man who never lived up to his potential; he wanted to have done better, to have been better. That's why he skips out on his retirement party to answer a call: A little girl has been found in the snow-covered woods, sexually assaulted with her throat slit. Jerry promises the little girl's mother (Patricia Clarkson) he will find her killer, swearing it upon a cross made by the girl herself.

Stan insists the manhunt is over; he has his murderer, an Indian named Toby (Benicio Del Toro, almost unrecognizable beneath long, matted hair). Stan seduces a confession from Toby, who's so stunted mentally and emotionally he will own up to anything Stan puts in his empty head. Jerry doesn't believe Toby, who speaks the way one imagines a dog would sound if it could talk, but his superiors want Jerry gone--retired, out of the way forever. Even when presented with a pattern of two other similar, unsolved crimes, they turn their backs on their old pal; his old boss, Eric Pollack (Sam Shepard), wants nothing to do with Jerry's "hunch." As far as Eric and Stan are concerned, their old friend has become a drunk and a clown.

For a moment, all of this seems too familiar--the retired cop who refuses to acknowledge he is past his prime and becomes determined to solve a closed case; but this is no Lethal Weapon, and never does Jerry utter that he's become "too old for this shit." There is no glib resolution, no easy answer: Jerry's dedication to a promise made to a grieving mother becomes single-minded obsession, to the point where he buys a beat-to-shit gas station from an old man (Harry Dean Stanton) located right in the middle of the triangle connecting the other crimes. For a while, he even tries to live a normal life, taking in an abused woman (Robin Wright Penn, looking gaunt and battered) and her daughter (Pauline Roberts). But the girl looks so much like the other three victims, she's almost their ghost made flesh and blood, and Jerry is not above using her as bait.

We soon wonder whether Jerry is motivated or merely mad; his brain spins with images and utterances laid out along the way like clues, if indeed there is a murderer still on the loose. The film, based on a 1958 novel by Friedrich Duerrenmatt, suggests that the bogeyman lives only in Jerry's mind; in his eyes, everyone's guilty till proven innocent (even, perhaps, himself). The Pledge is not too unlike the films of M. Night Shyamalan: It presents itself so slowly that when the truth makes itself known, the audience is already so vulnerable we're easily shattered by the revelation.

It's not hard to see why actors love working with Penn, even in the smallest roles; he lets them speak monologues even when they're saying nothing at all. A love scene between Nicholson and Wright Penn is shot entirely in close-up; we see their eyes, the way the dimness begins to flicker for only a moment. Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, and Michael O'Keefe show up for brief moments, and watching them interact with Nicholson is like watching McEnroe and Connors going at it during their prime. They give and take unselfishly; they're never more important than what they're saying...or not saying.

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