The Pledge (review)

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Man’s Inhumanity to Filmgoers

Some stories about the terrible things that some people can do to their fellow living creatures upon this Earth leave you wondering about the humanity of those people. Other stories — like the one The Pledge tells — leave you wondering about the humanity of those who would perpetrate such tales upon us.

Thoughtful sobriety — the kind that gives The Silence of the Lambs and Seven their power to stun and shock — is the veneer that overlays the pointless cruelty of The Pledge. But thin indeed is that veneer. It’s hard to tell whether the script — by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski, based on a book by Friedrich Dürrenmatt — or the heavy hand of director Sean Penn are more to blame for the overblown melodrama and the cheap manipulation on display here. Everyone involved should be ashamed, though, for when the film doesn’t elicit unintentional laughter, it provokes waves of sheer revulsion.
We’re meant to wonder if just-retired Reno police detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson: As Good as It Gets, Terms of Endearment) isn’t a little touched in the head for refusing to let go of a child-murder case he grabbed in his final hours of public duty. A little blond girl in a red dress is discovered raped and killed. Did I mention she was blond? She had big eyes and was really cute, too. These things are always much more tragic when adorable white children are involved. So there’s that, plus the child’s mother made Jerry promise to find her killer. Not just promise: he had to swear “by [his] soul’s salvation” — wait, it gets better — “on this cross made by” — you’ll love this —   “the hand of our daughter.” This just isn’t something you can wriggle out of — or is it just that Jack’s not ready to retire?

So we’re meant to wonder if Jerry is being unreasonable when he insists that the prime suspect, fingered mere hours after the girl’s murder, isn’t their man. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to be able to come to this conclusion, since it’s obvious to anyone who’s seen a single episode of Law and Order that the borderline-retarded suspect (Benicio Del Toro: Traffic, Snatch) was coerced into a confession — in a sickeningly uncomfortable interrogation — by Jerry’s colleague, Stan (Aaron Eckhart: Nurse Betty, Erin Brockovich). (And where was this guy’s lawyer?)

Penn, in fact, seemingly goes out of his way throughout the film to show that Jerry is not crazy by making just about everyone onscreen except Jack look like a snickering asshole or an inbred moron, from Stan, as the jerk who moves right into Jerry’s old office, to local-yokel cops to the oddball characters that wander through the film, serving little purpose except to point out Jerry’s normalcy.

So, is Jerry obsessed or not? He bugs Stan to reopen the case to the point at which Stan yells at him to “get a life!”… at which point Jerry goes fishing and buys a gas station. Don’t ask me what sense it makes, but after a lot of ranting and raving about promises made, Jerry takes off on permanent vacation. I mean, Penn literally cuts from Jack doing his mad thing all over Stan to Jack relaxing out on the lake. Jerry buys the gas station because it’s strategically placed between the place the little girl’s body was found and the site of another similar unsolved death, hoping the killer will drop by for some no-lead, I guess… and then we get to see Jerry acting completely unobsessed, swiping credit cards and chatting with customers. It’s infuriatingly like watching a pot of water on the stove, waiting for it to boil — in fact, we do get to watch water boiling at one point. If Jerry is obsessed, if he is consumed on a day-to-day basis with solving this murder, we just don’t see it.

But wait! Jerry has to be a little bonkers, because he starts courting Lori (Robin Wright Penn: Unbreakable, Forrest Gump) just when he discovers that she has a little blond daughter, Chrissy (Pauline Roberts). Is he planning on using Chrissy for bait, to draw the killer out? Why else would Jerry suggest that Lori buy that red dress for her adorable Cindy- Brady- moppet of a child? This is when the stomach turning begins, and doesn’t stop until the films comes to an absurd end.

I can only imagine that The Pledge is thoughtlessly brutish rather than intentionally so, since so much of the film is characterized by inept direction and careless writing. Helen Mirren (The Prince of Egypt) appears as some sort of expert Jerry turns to for help, showing her a drawing the murdered girl made just prior to her death, one Jerry is convinced represents her killer. Mirren goes unintroduced — we meet her as she sits in her office, surrounded by drawings and paintings and works of art. Is she an art therapist — Jerry calls her “doctor” — and if so, what would someone like that have to offer in finding the killer? Is she a criminal profiler? If so, what’s with all the art in the office? In another scene, a pink balloon floating away into the sky is meant to scare us, make us concerned for the safety of cute little Chrissy, for whom Lori is shouting in a crowd — yet we can hardly be expected to realize the significance of the lost balloon since we never saw Chrissy with it.

Thoughtlessness is no excuse, however, for so revolting a film that The Pledge ultimately is. I couldn’t wait to get out of the theater just to get the stink of it off me.

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