“The Pledge” is floating on your Netflix menu. The plain poster with Jack Nicholson’s lined faced and precise, no-nonsense moustache is an unflattering morsel that doesn’t exactly entice. But don’t be quick to scroll past. “The Pledge,” directed by Oscar winning actor Sean Penn, is a devastating portrait of an ageing detective who makes a promise to bring justice to a child murderer. It’s “one last ride” for our leading character Jerry Black (Nicholson), until he abandons the case and retires. It examines a man trying to relinquish his deduction instincts in exchange for a slippery grip on a ‘normal’ life. Jerry is such a cop by nature that he even ruins the surprise to his retirement party. Roger Ebert said “The Pledge” “begins as a police story and spirals down into madness.” Jerry’s inaction, will have equal and opposite reactions.
Jerry still has a few final hours on the clock before he’s officially retired and offers to ride-along with his successor Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart) after a particularly grisly murder call is received. They arrive to the disturbing scene of a young girl murdered and butchered after a sexual assault; and the elements are against them. Snowflakes cloak the the entire scene and the inexperienced local police are struggling to protect any evidence. The locals have also been traumatised by the nightmarish scene and have not faced the child’s parents to deliver the devastating news. Jerry steps up and tells the little girl’s mother Margaret Larsen (Patricia Clarkson) about her demise.
The eponymous “Pledge” scene is one of subtle hypnotism. Clarkson collects a cross that their now departed daughter had crafted. Nursing it like a totem of a pagan ritual she stalks around the concerned Jerry to extract a promise; justice for their daughter. The lack of ceremony around the interaction doesn’t register the impact until much later in the film.
Nicholson’s performance is so assured as Jerry. His beside manner, so-to-speak, is perfectly calm and respectful under these impossible circumstances. There’s no swagger in Jerry from Nicholson, he’s a shrewd observer and he’s presented with the perfect temperament to bear the psychological burden of the task. In a career sprinkled with outstanding performances, this is not only different but memorable.
An awkward Sasquatch of a man Toby (Benicio Del Toro) was observed fleeing the scene in a panic by a young man who discovered the body and local police have taken him to the station. After an exploitative interrogation, a confession is delivered by the clearly mentally challenged Toby. On his way to his cell he wrestles a pistol away from an officer and ends his own life. Jerry is the most disturbed about this scene.
His instincts push him to build together the possibility that a serial murder is operating in the region and that Toby’s stumbling into the scene was the worst possible luck. When his former partners in office refuse to grant him the official stamp of approval to pursue the theory Penn and the writers Kromolowski, masterfully split “The Pledge.”
In the process of building the investigation portion of the film, apart from assembling one of the most impressive casts in recent memory - Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, Helen Mirren and Harry Dean Stanton - Jerry’s deficiencies as a man are reflected in the interactions with the tapestry of fascinating characters (particularly Mirren’s Doctor). Penn frames this early investigation as an insight into who Jerry is and why this case has an undeniable lure.
When the film changes gears, the descent to madness begins. Jerry retires to work at a petrol station alongside a great fishing lake and we’re introduced to Lori (Robin Wright) and her daughter. Despite finding a balance that he’s never been able to accomplish in a life as a murder police man, the universe swells like a storm full of signs that begin to haunt every waking moment of Jerry’s life. Every hunch, every previously frayed thread fuse into leads. Penn begins this process like a cloud formation. The boil, the steam, the evaporation, an ominous cloud and finally an uncontrollable downpour. It’s cold front of mounting dread that Jerry calmly stands in and infuriatingly for the audience, attempts to ignore until it's far too late.
Penn is a formidable director. “Into the Wild” is the most universally renowned of his film ends with the leading character’s pursuit to live an unbridled life resulting in a mistake that results in suffering and death. “The Pledge” shares the similarly devastating trajectory.