Whenever you see a man looking anguished and alone in the opening shot of a film, and especially if he’s surrounded by wide open space—dirt, snow, sky, whatever—it’s a pretty good bet that what’s coming will not be pleasant. I’m thinking Fargo, Paris, Texas, even 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, conjure this image of the man alone in a dusty, windy setting, compounded by the fact that the man in question is Jack Nicholson, looking as ravaged as he always does these days. You can only grit your teeth and settle in, knowing you’re in for some unpleasantness.
The Pledge, director Sean Penn’s second collaboration with Nicholson, begins like this, and proceeds to become increasingly dense and disturbing. While it’s never uninteresting, and its story moves sinuously, quite deft and engaging, compared to the more lumbering pace that characterized Penn’s first two films, The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard, it eventually becomes overbearing. This isn’t to say that the first two films aren’t often fascinating or full of intense, difficult ideas, for they surely are. It’s also not to say that The Pledge is entirely unpredictable, for it surely is not. Still, the new film feels like Penn has hit something approximating a stride: it’s dreary and nervous-making, as you anticipate it will be, based on that first shot of Nicholson (in fact, the first shot is not him precisely, but his boot, as he reaches down to scratch beneath his pants leg, then the camera cuts wide and overhead, to convey his desperation). Moreover, the plot that sucks Nicholson’s Nevada cop, Jerry Black, into a void of paranoia and isolation, is occasionally pretentious, a little too grandly testifying to the Human Condition. But the film’s cinematography (by Chris Menges), narrative structure, and performances—Nicholson’s especially—are consistently impressive, and at times superb.
Scripted by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski and based on Swiss playwright Friedrich Duerrenmatt’s book, the film is focused through Jerry Black, who, on the night of his retirement party, catches a completely awful case, an 8-year-old girl who’s been raped and killed. Though he’s encouraged to “move on,” and to let another detective, Stan (Aaron Eckhart), take care of it, Jerry can’t help himself. He pursues the case. The movie catches you up in Jerry’s dilemma, by splitting its early time between the slow-motioned dancing bodies at the retirement party and the slowly dawning horror of a young boy on a Ski-Doo, who discovers the body in a snowy wood. Once Jerry commits to the investigation, he’s elected to inform the victim’s parents, owners of a turkey farm. You won’t soon forget the image of Jerry wading through a sea of white gobbling birds, while the mother and father wait, silent and horrified, for what can only be bad news. It’s to the mother (Patricia Clarkson) that Jerry makes the pledge that will change his life forever—he promises to catch the killer, else risk his soul’s damnation.
This heavy load becomes more severe when the ambitious, arrogant Stan finds a “likely” (read: underclass, “Indian,” apparently retarded) culprit and cajoles a mumbly, panicky confession out of him. Jerry knows that Stan is wrong. And so Jerry undertakes his own investigation, defying his captain (a weary-looking Sam Shepard), carefully probing the bits of memory held by various people who knew the girl, which come out as stories about giants, angels, and porcupines. Unable to let go of his self-identity as a cop or his belief that he’s right, Jerry shapes these fragments into an unnervingly logical story of monstrosity and pathology. But as you watch and even encourage his efforts, you also know, remembering that opening shot of Jerry alone, that he will inevitably develop his own pathology, which will mirror that of the murderer he pursues so doggedly.
It’s bad enough that Jerry descends into his obsession, but it gets worse. When he’s unable to convince anyone in the department to believe his version of events, Jerry ostensibly does retire, but he moves to the area where he suspects his target—a serial killer of little girls—is living. At this point the movie spends a long time tracing Jerry’s apparent rehabilitation, as he settles down with Lori (Robin Wright Penn) and her 8-year-old daughter Chrissy (Pauline Roberts), both escaping Lori’s abusive ex. Unfortunately, as soon as you see that Chrissy resembles the previous victims, it’s a little too obvious that Jerry and the girl-killer will have a run-in down the road.
For all the attention it pays to gruesomeness of the murders, the impatient ruthlessness of Jerry’s former colleagues, and the ways that Jerry’s new community resists seeing a poisonous “truth,” The Pledge” is actually less about Jerry’s cop activities and interests than it is about his retirement crisis. That this crisis becomes a fullblown obsession with finding the killer, to extent that he endangers the people he ostensibly loves most, is one of the film’s most poignant but also most grating points. Built on the haunting lyricism and recondite sadness of Jerry’s patched-together fairy tale of himself—as hero, as savior—the film eventually makes a descent that parallels its protagonist’s. As he becomes more obsessed, The Pledge becomes less subtle.