In The Pledge Jack Nicholson gives a brilliant performance, perhaps his finest, as Jerry Black, a retired Nevada police detective who can’t let go of a case, the murder of an 8-year-old girl, ostensibly because of his promise to her mother that he would find the killer. Sean Penn’s eerie, at times terrifying thriller is based on Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s same-titled novel (Das Versprechen), which earlier had been made as a procedural by filmmaker Ladislao Vajda: Es geschah am hellichten Tage (1958), to whose script Dürrenmatt contributed. Penn’s relocation of the Swiss material is largely successful; the many changes wrought by scenarists Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski help Penn explore what he plainly regards as a sick American society. He makes a convincing case.
In truth, Black’s pursuit of the killer is more complexly motivated than it appears, echoing Tennyson’s Ulysses: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end,/ To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!” His former colleagues are convinced that the actual killer is Toby Jay Wadenah, a former rapist, who committed suicide after confessing to the crime; but we agree with Black that the police interrogator himself convinced this suspect of his guilt.* Black has thus become a figure of ridicule; and haunted, ego-collapsing and increasingly deluded, he blurs the line between himself and the criminal he seeks by allowing an 8-year-old girl he presumably loves to become the next target for the killer he knows is still out there. Penn, therefore, attacks the police for two different mindsets, one that is blind to the effects of their vicious tactics, and the other that is expert enough to see the truth but, pursuing this more for the sake of their own ego than for justice, ends up fragile and lost in the convolutions of their own mental stress. Moreover, Penn intends a wider reference: the humiliated, discounted American working class. The actual killer, it turns out, also belongs to this.
There are effective cameos by Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, Lois Smith, Michael O’Keefe and Mickey Rourke; but Aaron Eckart as Stan, Black’s hotshot replacement and police adversary, and Benicio Del Toro as Wadenah are dreadful beyond measure.
* We are sure from the start that Wadenah is innocent because of Penn’s treatment of his flight across the landscape, which a schoolboy witnesses and reports as guilty behavior. This is the main reason why Wadenah is considered a suspect, arrested and interrogated. But after he investigates the scene and sees the younger child’s bloody corpse, the boy responds in exactly the same way; he also tears through the snow as though in flight. This visual identification of the suspect with the innocent witness is a perfect way for Penn to establish the suspect’s innocence, no matter his eventual confession. Before interrogating him, Stan brags he will get Wadenah to confess in record time—and he does.
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