*The Pledge (R)
Jack Nicholson proves once again that he can do more than smirk and wax evil or neurotic in Sean Penn's dark tale of certain doom, The Pledge. But neither Nicholson's fine performance, nor a slew of tasty cameos by the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, Harry Dean Stanton, Sam Shepard and Mickey Rourke can save The Pledge from Penn's relentlessly gloomy persistence of vision. Dark is a stylistic decision, and Penn is an intelligent, artful filmmaker who can make a setting work and clearly works well with actors. But in The Pledge, Penn seems so determined to send us home beneath a dark cloud of hopelessness that we resent him for not just telling the story.
That said, this film's cinematic detailing, the dark, frustrating story and the central character's spiral downward stay with you long after the theater lights come up.
Based on the 1957 detective novella by Friedrich Drenmatt, The Pledge is the story of Jerry Black (Nicholson), a retiring police detective who, at the last minute on his final day at work, gets involved in the investigation of a brutal child murder. Deeply disturbed, Black swears to the dead child's mother that he will find the murderer, no matter what.
A suspect is quicky taken into custody, a local mentally disturbed Indian man (Benicio Del Toro) who is forced to confess by Jerry's successor (Aaron Eckhart). The Indian commits suicide in jail, and Jerry continues to pursue the case, knowing the wrong man has been caught.
Working with clues left behind by the dead girl -- a drawing of a giant and a black station wagon -- and other police reports of similar murders in the area, Jerry is able to narrow down the killer's territory and concludes that he will murder again. We know Jerry's going over the bend when he buys a run-down gas station on a country road near where he believes the killer operates.
Eventually Jerry hooks up with a waitress, played by Robin Wright Penn, and invites her and her little girl Chrissy (Pauline Roberts) to come live with him. We know, as Jerry knows, that Chrissy will be the murderer's next target, but in a chilling moment, when she tells him in no uncertain terms that the murderer has come after her, Jerry makes the fateful decision of using Chrissy to capture his man -- and doesn't tell her mother.
Nicholson's depiction of an aging man, unable to deny an obsession, is true and carefully measured. There are some beautiful, tender moments between him and Chrissy, and except for when Penn uses campy, swirly voiceovers to indicate the voices in Jerry's head, we never sense a false moment in his decline. Wright Penn gives her usual compelling performance, but her appearances are too fleeting, as are all the cameos, to leave a lasting impression. Mickey Rourke breaks your heart in his short scene as the grieving father of a missing girl, then quickly disappears.
The Pledge is Nicholson's film, and the role of Jerry is one of his best. Now if the actor could just get his good buddy Sean Penn to simmer down a little bit, maybe we could look forward to their next collaboration without a sense of impending doom.