In The Pledge Sean Penn (director) and Jack Nicholson (star) have teamed up to give us a portrait of the hero as “a drunk and a clown” — which has a certain appropriateness, I suppose. There’s even a part for Mickey Rourke here — to say nothing of cameo roles for such actors as Tom Noonan, Vanessa Redgrave, Benicio del Toro, Helen Mirren, Sam Shepard and Harry Dean Stanton some of whom are not known for being drunks and clowns. Mr. Nicholson plays Jerry Black, a burnt-out police detective in Reno who is on the point of retirement. Beginning to hit the bottle, he is looking forward to spending his time fishing, and his colleagues in the department who obviously like and admire him give him a ticket to go marlin fishing in Baja California as a retirement present.
Can you guess what’s going to happen? Well, I’ll tell you. A big case comes up on his last day on the job: the rape and murder of a pretty little girl with blonde hair and blue eyes and wearing a red dress. The (tastefully discreet) scenes of this crime are artfully if rather showily cross-cut with scenes from Jerry’s retirement party, in case there’s any danger of our not getting the point. By chance — and the cowardice of the local sheriff’s officer — Jerry gets the awful job of telling the little girl’s parents. Her mother makes him promise “by your soul’s salvation…on this cross, made by our daughter” that he will catch the killer. This is the “pledge” of the title, which naturally spoils Jerry’s retirement. He becomes obsessed with catching the bad guy, even after his successor, Eric (Aaron Eckhart), wrings a confession out of a retarded Indian (Mr del Toro) who then proceeds to blow his own brains out.
So here are the basic elements of our story: a burnt-out cop who has seen too much and who, haunted by his promise to a bereaved mother, comes out of retirement to pursue the investigation on his own because everybody else on the force believes that the case is closed, the killer captured and deceased. Only he knows that he is on the trail of a serial killer who will likely kill again. Oh yes, one thing more. A two-time divorcé, the cop takes in a waitress (Robin Wright Penn), apparently a stranger to the concept of make-up and good grooming until he comes along, who has a physically abusive ex-husband and a pretty little daughter with blond hair and blue eyes and a red dress. . . Does that sound like a movie plot to you? Apparently it did to Sean Penn too.
Out of so many familiar ingredients, Penn concocts one gratifyingly original delectation. Of course we realize that the cop, although necessarily smarter than all the other cops in spite of his weakness for Glenfiddich sipped straight from the bottle, must get one thing wrong. But the one thing we least expect him to get wrong is his focusing his suspicion on an oleaginous middle-aged but apparently celibate lay preacher and Bible-thumper (Mr Noonan) who still lives with his mother and who befriends his waitress’s little girl. Of course, thinks the experienced movie-goer. It only needed this to be completely predictable: yet another of those murdering, raping Christians that you so often run across in the movies. But the preacher-man is not necessarily the cliché that everything around him is.
We also have a touching scene between Jerry and the little girl as he tries not to alarm her after she has tried to talk him into letting her go to the nice preacher’s church: “A lot of people believe a lot of different things,” Jerry explains. “Some people believe that the stories in the Bible are true and some think they’re like your fairy tales.” The multiple ironies of this scene I will only hint at here by saying that the other cops are persuaded that Jerry is a believer in fairy tales when he tells them of his suspicions. These ironies play nicely into that hardy perennial Hollywood theme: the lonely, half-crazed outsider — sometimes, as in Mel Gibson’s Conspiracy Theory, an actual lunatic — who can see farther and truer than all the wise men of the established order.
But ultimately it is this, and not just the film’s fondness for cinematic clichés, that is the real problem with the movie. In this story about a murderer of little girls, all the machinery of dramatic irony is cranked up for the sake of — the investigating detective! It just so happens that he hears what happens when he has only six hours to retirement, that he is allowed to come on the initial investigation, that he is deputed to go inform the bereaved parents, and so is led to make the solemn promise, on his soul’s salvation, to find the killer. Then at the film’s climax the irony machinery is cranked up again, all so that we should think: “Ah, if only this hadn’t happened or that hadn’t happened just when and as it did, the poor cop, branded by the world as a drunk and a clown, would have been vindicated.
Hold on just a gol-durned minute there! While we’re wishing for the great might-have-been, how about maybe wishing that the murdered girls were alive again while we’re at it! Somehow the pathos of Jack Nicholson being down on his uppers — bruised and bleeding and talking to himself as he swigs from the bottle of an inferior brand of whisky — lacks a little something in the context.