Friday 2 December 2022

Article: Making Promisies - Looking Back at The Pledge

While film Twitter indulged itself in yet another madding round of Marvel vs Scorsese discourse, I needed something to watch. I found myself settling on Sean Penn’s The Pledge. A detective thriller based on Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt’s 1958 novella of the same name.

In reading reviews of the film, I found opinions of some of my usual go-to writers veered wildly. Roger Ebert raved about the film. Reviewing it twice and placing it on his list of great movies. Mary Ann Johnston however despised the film. Disliking its ugliness and absurd climax. I had The Pledge on my watch list for the longest time. Put off by Penn’s frustrating 2007 feature Into the Wild. A film I’ve never returned to due to the lead character’s stubbornness. Something that pairs nicely with this film.  

On the Eve of his retirement, Detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) finds himself caught up in a child murder case. Jerry makes a solemn promise to the victim’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) that he intends to find the killer. However, soon after the promise is made, the police apprehend an intellectually disabled native American (Benicio Del Toro) and consider the case closed after a botched detainment. Jerry isn’t so sure. After leaving the force, he decides to embark on his private investigation of the case, based on little more than his promise and a hunch. Very soon Jerry is triangulating the area of the crime with other cold cases. He’s buying gas stations which he mans, as he believes the killer may frequent there. Jerry also becomes acquainted with a single mother (Robin Wright) whose child would be the perfect next victim for the killer. Quickly they move in with Jerry and a mutual affection grows between the three. But it becomes hard to tell if he’s using the girl as bait. And what of the friendly god-fearing bachelor who befriends the girl? What is his motivation for all this?

The Pledge is very much a Sean Penn film. It is less a film of excess as it is a film of a muchness. At times the film wants you to see that it’s directed. With a capital, D. Be its indulgence in a multitude of visual tics to having known actors swinging for the cages despite only being in one scene. It’s a film with personality. And that personality is that of Sean Penn. He may not appear in any shot of the film, but each frame feels very much like the man making it. Much like the performances of Penn in his pomp, The Pledge wants you to know of its importance.

That’s not a bad thing. Despite a sense of indulgence, The Pledge is an absorbing quasi-procedural. One that lingers on like a bad stain. Perhaps this is because Penn has chosen a story created to purposely frustrate. Sneering in the face of the kind of exceptionalism that is often found in such crime dramas. Jerry is dogmatic in his obsession, and usually, we find this to be a good trait in our cop protagonists.  But much like the novella, the film is based on, the film undermines much of what we expect in detective fiction. That brilliant “cop logic” found so often within crime thrillers is greatly flawed. Obsession can be defeated. Often by chance.

The Pledge almost feels like a precursor to Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder (2003) and David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). A crime thriller that debates that maybe such crimes aren’t sufficiently solved by a certain logic. That the puzzle may not fit together despite holding the right number of pieces. Investors of the film got nervous after another film they distributed (Battlefield Earth) sank like a stone at the box office. Because of this Penn was rushed to complete the film. Tom Noonan claims that there were still scenes featuring himself which fully rounded his character. And yet allows Penn to indulge in distracting edits and insert shots. But it also helps show up the flawed interior of its main character. Jerry’s intention to catch the killer is absurd. His reasoning is faulty. Yet it’s easy to be charmed into his search for justice. It’s often why such movies are watched.  

And there is a strong wish for deliverance here. The crime is brutal. Its grimness is on full display. The investigation into the murder is shambolic. Much like Memories of Murder, the chaos and contamination are deeply frustrating.  Nicholson’s subdued yet dominating performance as Jerry is a winning one. A man sees this one last job as a chance to preserve his sense of manhood and relevance. But the film also lulls and distracts. Disarming both Jerry and the audience. Spending ample time wrapped up in tiny-town America in such a way that it helps champion the madness of Jerry’s obsession.

It's a cheat to say that The Pledge is about mood over logic. Such a statement screams cop-out. Yet Penn’s film plays with the irrationality of it all. Mary Ann Johnson considered the film thoughtless. I feel the film knows what it’s doing. Consider the star-studded cast. Big players give gravitas to one-scene roles. Pushing past the craziness of it all. Micky Rourke steals a scene as a distraught father. This is one of his best performances. He’s barely on screen for 2 minutes. Helen Mirren appears as some sort of shrink at one point. It’s never fully explained who she is and why Jerry goes to see her. Yet the casting of such a commanding actor forcibly glosses over the fact. It’s easy to go with it. The same can be said for a small, despicable scene in which Jerry speaks to a local deputy (Costas Mandylor) about evidence over an assumed closed case. Mandylor is so brash and slimy that it’s easy to ignore the surprising judgement call he makes.

It doesn’t all work. Benicio Del Toro would probably not be given such a role as a mentally challenged Native American. It’s a role in which he puts his whole self into. But also reveals why Penn’s performance in I Am Sam (2001) is also so cringe-worthy. The additional bigoty that takes place within Del Toro's interrogation scene doesn’t help matters. Now 20 years on, there would probably be at least an actual Native American in such a role. Not that it would help the discomfort of the scene. And yet, it’s not as if we haven’t seen such ugliness in other crime thrillers. Again, this seemingly fuels aspects of exceptionalism and masculinity within the main protagonist. Playing on the idea that Jerry knows best. And that tragic circumstances would not have occurred if he was still allowed to lead.

But is that wholly true? Moments of The Pledge suggest that Jerry is already somewhat checked out. Lost to his promise to avenge a tragic case. From incredible deduction skills to possibly using those who are closest to him as bait. What makes The Pledge fascinating is how Penn draws out the despair. Playing down Nicholson’s usual charisma to give a grim poker face which still tells us too much. This is a man who should fold his hands. The film decides against the easy route of gun fights and car chases. Rooting with this broken man’s blinded obsession and what he may do. With things being pushed to the brink. Of course, this makes the film's final moments even more haunting. The Pledge finishes on a note that gives no comfort or answers. Just the grim hand of chance at play. It’s a disorientating finish. One that as stated previously is rightly absurd. But it’s the right finish for this movie. Because life is absurd. And we perhaps should not make such bold promises when fate decides all.

The Pledge is currently on Netflix at the time of writing.

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