Police discover the mutilated body of a seven-year-old girl, raped, murdered and abandoned in a lonely place. An investigator is haunted by the crime and determines to redeem the wrong.
The Pledge evolved out of Sean Penn’s previous feature as director, The Crossing Guard, in which Jack Nicholson gave a memorable performance as a jeweller bent on the hopeless mission of avenging his daughter’s accidental death. In the new film, Nicholson plays Nevada policeman Jerry Black. He’s middle-aged, twice divorced, childless and ready for his retirementountil that grim discovery in the mountain. It’s then that he recovers his sense of moral purpose and makes a solemn pledge to the girl’s mother that he will hunt down the killer. When a mentally retarded Indian man (Benicio Del Torro) confesses to the crime, Jerry is unconvinced. Isolated and wracked by self-doubt, he nevertheless pursues the case, discerning deeper and darker patterns.
Black wants to act righteously, but he finds that his best intentions might unwittingly lead him to evil. The danger grows acute after he becomes emotionally involved with Lori (Robin Wright Penn), a roadhouse waitress with an abusive ex-husband and a seven-year-old daughter. Robin Wright Penn is scarcely recognisable in this role, but she proves her desire to collaborate with her husband on tough, tender material. Indeed, the Penn-Nicholson ticket brought out an extraordinary ensemble cast, including Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke and Sam Shepard. The outstanding cinematography is by the brilliant British cameraman Chris Menges.
The Pledge is an exceptional achievement in any number of respects. For one, it manages to be both a murder story and a character study, set in an unlovely proletarian milieu. So, in the standard Hollywood studio parlance, it’s ‘dark’ and ‘difficult’. But unlike many of the supposedly independent-minded American directors of his generation, Penn doesn’t despise his character or take relish in their cruelties. It is vital that Penn’s brand of filmmaking receives support because at this moment he is carrying a standard for risky artistry at an almost wholly uninteresting time in American cinema. U.S.A., 2001. Colour. Anamorphic. Dolby digital stereo. 123 min.