The Pledge

Directed by Sean Penn
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Aaron Eckhart, Sam Shepard.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and language.

Review by Matt Heffernan <>
January 24, 2001

"Jack is back and better than ever!" That's what the quote whores will probably say. In actuality (the basis of my reviews), Jack Nicholson's long-awaited return to the screen after his Academy Award-winning role in As Good As It Gets sits firmly in the middle of his work. He has re-teamed with Sean Penn, who previously directed him in The Crossing Guard, to make The Pledge.

He plays Reno Police Detective Jerry Black, who is finally retiring after a long and acclaimed career. During his last day on the job, he leaves his retirement party to investigate a murder with Detective Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart). A young girl named Ginny Larson was brutally raped and murdered, then found by a boy who saw a man running away from the scene. Jack promises the Larsons that he will find Ginny's killer, after Mrs. made him pledge on a little cross that Ginny had made herself.

The police find the man the boy spotted -- a retarded man with a record of child molestation (Benicio Del Toro). Krolak gets a muddled and confused confession out of him, and the case is closed. However, Jerry isn't satisfied, and continues to search for the killer during his retirement. His search intensifies when he meets a woman (Robin Wright Penn) whose daughter fits the same victim profile as Ginny and other girls that met similar fates.

The Pledge had the potential to be really good, great even, considering the talent involved. However, it never seems to take off. Penn managed to get all sorts of big name actors to play small parts, including Del Toro, Sam Shepard, Helen Mirren, Harry Dean Stanton, Mickey Rourke, and even Vanessa Redgrave. The performances are all good, but the film just goes on forever. At over two hours, the film takes its sweet time through what should have been a very tight mystery.

The key to any mystery is a great ending, which can either be a simple reveal or an elaborate resolution. I won't give away the ending to The Pledge, but I will say that it added an ironic tone that didn't mesh with the rest of the film. The screenplay was based on a German novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and even though I haven't read it, I'd have to believe that the book managed a more consistent tone.

I'm not sure what kind of film Penn wanted to make, and maybe he didn't either. That was most likely his problem.

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The Pledge (2001)

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Review © 2001 Matt Heffernan