The Pledge (2001)

(On Cable TV, November 2017) I will vigorously defend the right of filmmakers to make the movies they want to make … but then again I will also defend the right of viewers to have the reaction they want to the movie they’re seeing. This is relevant to The Pledge insofar as director Sean Penn wanted to make a movie that upended the traditional conventions of a crime thriller. (Warning: Spoilers.) The point of the script—based on a novella significantly titled “The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel”—is to show that not all investigations end up finding the culprit, and some of the time this can be a mere stroke of luck (or bad luck). The ending doesn’t go for full bleakness by killing the killer without the investigator knowing about it, but such meagre comforts do nothing to save the protagonist from ending up a ruined alcoholic mumbling to himself about his failure. Such a downer ending, coupled with the grim premise of a child killer, means that The Pledge will never become a crowd favourite. There are plenty of vastly more entertaining and deliberately satisfying crime thrillers out there if you’re looking for that kind of stuff. On the other hand, there’s quite a lot to like in The Pledge despite its intentionally downbeat nature. Jack Nicholson turns in one of his last good performances as an out-of-persona retiring detective who comes to obsess about the murder of a young girl, and promises to her mom that we will find the truth. Director Sean Penn delivers a rather good movie, handled with some care and unusual flourishes despite insisting a bit too much on some elements at time. I also suspect that Penn is the reason why the film is studded with known actors in small roles, from Benicio del Toro’s early brief turn to people such as Hellen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave and Mickey Rourke in rather minor roles. There’s even an intriguing plot point midway through, as the protagonist spends his retirement funds buying a gas station in order to gather more information on possible suspects. The Pledge works much better when considered as a drama rather than a thriller: it places more emphasis on the cost of obsession (even justified) and less on the achievement of detection. Still, it is a kick in the gut and I can certainly understand why many won’t like that.

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