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The Pledge

(2001) *** 1/2 R
148 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Sean Penn. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Vanessa Redgrave, Aaron Eckhart.

In a few hours, the man's career will be over. As he packs up his office, he looks over the photos again—photos of a young, energetic man broadly grinning. The man is a police detective being put out to pasture, but he is also Jack—the Jack—Jack Nicholson. In Sean Penn's masterful tone poem The Pledge, Nicholson buries the gregarious, devilish comic persona most associate with him for Penn's portrait of the unraveling of a man.

Of course, this is not the first time Nicholson has judiciously sublimated "Smilin' Jack." He has perhaps done so increasingly with advancing age, notably in Penn's The Crossing Guard. Here, Penn sets a tone in sync with Nicholson's performance right from the start. Both the story and the character, Jerry Black, are enveloped by imposing and remote Nevada settings (beautifully photgraphed by Chris Menges). On a relentless quest to solve a little girl's murder—and having pledged to her mother that the killer will be brought to justice, Jerry huddles in a hat and parka surrounded by snow, holds vigil at a hot, dusty gas station, and hides in the underbrush of the woods, all the while peering, squinting through thick, square glasses.

Penn and Nicholson relentlessly turn up the magnification on Jerry to achieve microscopic character details. Penn's pace is unrushed—or patient, like Jerry—though no moment is wasted. The early moments with Jerry subtly reveal telling details as he obsessively mourns the loss of an obsessive job; he even detects his own surprise retirement party. Penn also shows Jerry's shopworn irrelevance to the job. His methods considered out-of-date and his personality disposable (after a perfunctory speech, he is able to wander through his own party unbothered by well-wishers), Jerry sparks up when he catches the scent of a new case and fatefully leaves his own party, professing he has 6 hours until his official retirement. At work, the well-intentioned but cock-of-the-walk Aaron Eckhart (as the next-in-line detective) and Sam Shepard make effective foils to Jerry's disproportionate enthusiasm.

The resultant crime scene and visit to the parents (the latter played against the surreal backdrop of a turkey farm) put Jerry on an invigorating but painful track. After rejecting the hastily-corralled prime suspect (Benicio del Toro), Jerry is credibly dismissed by his former colleagues. Soon, we see he is happiest carrying out his own elaborate plan to triangulate the location of the killer, feeling again the thrill of the hunt. Jerry encounters plenty of local color while interviewing a succession of all-star day players, including Lynn Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, Helen Mirren, Harry Dean Stanton and Lois Smith; each makes music with Nicholson. Ultimately, he settles into an unsettling relationship with another little girl and her single mother, played by Robin Wright Penn. Penn is daringly drained of glamour and typically affecting.

The film is based on a novel by Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt, which has been filmed more than once before. Nevertheless, there's no denying this version—with its sprawling, uniformly excellent cast—is top-notch. The costume and production design are as supremely detailed as the acting, and the plaintive score by Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt is likewise invaluable. The film's twists pack a punch and though Penn only orchestrates one thriller "jolt," it's unconventionally satisfying.

The double team of Nicholson and Penn keeps the film grounded. This supremely disturbing modern tragedy-- with its probing camera, mordant flashes of sly wit, and absurd twists of fate-- finds Penn at his most assured as a director. The Pledge is wholly engrossing.

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Aspect ratios: 2.20:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround

Street date: 5/19/2001


Unfortunately, The Pledge has not gotten the deluxe treatment it deserves on DVD. Lacking any extras other than a trailer and some cast notes, the film is presented in a passable transfer with a clean audio track. The image is generally a bit soft (with some apparent artifacting); the photography of the film may account for the haziness. The black level is also questionable during a nighttime visit to a crime scene.

Given the film's low profile, however, don't hold your breath for a special edition with a pricy new transfer. Especially since this title is frequently discounted, the price is right to add this bare-bones disc of The Pledge to your Jack Nicholson collection.
Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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