Friday, April 20, 2012

Overlooked Gems #30: The Pledge

Grade: 93 (A)

There are plenty of actors who direct, but not all of them actually can direct. Mel Gibson might have won an Academy Award for Directing, but his films are bloated, self-serious affairs filled with a queasy mixture of cornball and bloodlust. Ron Howard has made a career off of his lack of imagination. Kevin Costner? Let’s not go there. Sean Penn, on the other hand, displays such skill behind the camera that if he were to give up acting to pursue directing full time, he might become one of the best actor-director success stories in recent memory. Penn is best known for his excellent 2007 film Into the Wild, but even better is his underrated 2001 film The Pledge.

Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) is a Reno police detective on his way to retirement. When a little girl is found raped and murdered, Jerry’s fellow officer Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart) arrests Toby (Benicio Del Toro),a mentally retarded Native American. Stan convinces Toby in an interrogation that he committed the crime, causing Toby’s suicide, but Jerry isn’t convinced they found the right man. He becomes obsessed with the case, discovers similar deaths in the area, and slowly starts to lose his grip on reality.

Penn assembles an impressive cast- Eckhart, Sam Shepard and Dale Dickey as police officers, Del Toro, Helen Mirren as a doctor, Patricia Clarkson and Vanessa Redgrave as the dead girl’s grieving mother and grandmother, Mickey Rourke the father of another murdered girl, Tom Noonan as a suspicious priest, Harry Dean Stanton as a gas station owner, and a nearly-unrecognizable Robin Wright (then Penn’s wife) as an abused woman who develops a relationship with Nicholson. Penn handles the large cast well, but perhaps most impressive is the coiled, subtly obsessive performance he got out of a late-period Nicholson. Nicholson’s past twenty years have been filled with more self-parody than acting. The Pledge joins About Schmidt and The Departed as one of the happy exceptions. He never relies on the trademark smug grin or over-the-top Jack mannerisms. This is a man who has made a promise to bring justice to a dead girl, and as obsession takes hold, Nicholson never lapses into “Jack acting crazy” as he often does.

But Penn’s skill behind the camera doesn’t stop with the actors. I have not seen Penn’s first two films as a director, The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard, but The Pledge and Into the Wild show an auteur at work. As a director and as a person, Penn is a man who considers violence as an affront to nature. He photographs nature beautifully and unpretentiously (shades of Terrence Malick here), and he doesn’t condescend to his characters. Penn is agnostic, but The Pledge doesn’t view the religious or non-religious as better than the other. These are flawed (if often good) people, and Penn doesn’t give any easy answers. There are some who will find the ending of the film maddeningly ambiguous. But in a film that’s more about questions than answers, it seems appropriate.

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