Archive for January 19, 2001

The Pledge

January 19, 2001

The Pledge Jack NicholsonIn two out of his three directorial outings, Sean Penn has had the good fortune of having Jack Nicholson, unglamorous and hungry to act, as his star. Subtle work such as Nicholson does in The Crossing Guard and now The Pledge makes up for any ten crowd-pleasing, one-hand-tied-behind-his-back Nicholson performances (like, say, As Good As It Gets). Not content to be a brilliant actor himself, Penn is shaping up to be one of the great actor’s directors — a filmmaker who lets his performers live and breathe, giving them space to invent and to inspire each other.

Nicholson rules over The Pledge with a shaky hand, and that’s the source of his power here. He immerses himself in the role of Jerry Black, a Nevada detective about to retire from the force. Twice divorced, with no children that we hear about (we see a possible son in a photograph), Jerry plans rather half-heartedly to file himself away at a lake resort, fishing for marlins and waiting to die. When a little girl’s body is found in the snowbound woods, raped and murdered, Jerry can’t turn his back. He visits the girl’s parents (Patricia Clarkson and Michael O’Keefe), promising to find her killer. He knows he can’t fade into what he sees as the purgatory of retirement just yet. His brain can’t shut off the deductive process.

In structure, The Pledge is only tenuously a whodunit. We see Jerry uncovering clues, making connections that others scoff at (younger cop Aaron Eckhart and captain Sam Shepard are the main scoffers), refusing to believe that the case is closed even after a confession is manipulated out of a Native American drifter (Benicio Del Toro) who is barely even aware of his surroundings. We feel Jerry’s need to honor his promise and impose sense on a senseless crime. This movie, adapted by scripters Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski from the book The Promise by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, is similar to the overlooked 1982 drama The Border, featuring another fine, low-key performance by Nicholson as a lawman driven to do the right thing in the face of cynicism and indifference.

The Pledge also ranks among recent depressive, wintry dramas like The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction, in which the snow seems to rise to cover old wounds, old secrets, old violence. Chris Menges’ photography is immaculate yet naturalistic, never overselling the chilly climate or reducing the scenery to postcards. Sean Penn is never likely to direct a feel-good romantic comedy; his gods are Bergman and Cassavetes, with perhaps a side order of the French New Wave directors. Nicholson responds to Penn’s directorial muscle by allowing himself to appear weak; wrapping himself in this despairing role, he nevertheless exudes the intellectual glee of an actor who feels safe to explore, who knows he’s in good hands.

Continuing his lonely hunt for the killer, Jerry buys a gas station, the better to position himself by the road and see who rolls into town. (One wonderful touch: the former gas-station owner is Harry Dean Stanton, one of many cast members known for on-screen or off-screen hellraising; others include Mickey Rourke as the numb father of another missing girl, Vanessa Redgrave as the slain girl’s grandmother, and Helen Mirren as a shrink.) He also meets a waitress (Robin Wright Penn), a decent woman abused by her ex-husband, and her little daughter (Pauline Roberts). Feelings develop between the broken-down old cop and the wounded waitress, and Jerry has a kindly, grandfatherly touch with the little girl. What we begin to wonder is whether the resulting family unit is only a means to an end; we also begin to wonder about Jerry’s sanity.

Almost defiantly, The Pledge leaves us with no clear-cut resolution, yet this feels like the right — the only — way for such an emotionally messy film to finish. At the very beginning, we see a bloodied Jerry having what appears to be a nervous breakdown; this is reprised at the end, and we understand why. Penn catches us leaning the wrong way: conditioned by whodunits to expect a lurid revelation, we are instead confronted with an anticlimax that confounds our expectations and Jerry’s. Yet this question mark (closer to an ellipsis, actually) is more emphatic than the usual strained exclamation point that closes most formula Hollywood thrillers, and is more haunting than any manufactured shock ending. Sean Penn is batting three for three now; if he wants to forego acting to concentrate on directing, I wish he’d do the latter more often, but if movies like The Pledge are the result of five years of waiting for the right material, he has my blessing to wait.

The Gift

January 19, 2001

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man is one of the most hotly awaited movies of next year, and it’s easy to see why: His past three films — A Simple Plan, For Love of the Game, and now The Gift — are deadly dull, and his fans are hoping a big-budget superhero movie might wake him up. It would be sad work to determine which of Raimi’s late-’90s Hollywood films is the worst — the most severe betrayal of the filmmaker he used to be — though For Love of the Game may have the edge. The Gift is, like A Simple Plan, a respectable thriller anyone could have directed. There’s not an ounce of Raimi’s former playfulness in it; a vibrant director is dying before our eyes.

The pulpy-gothic script comes courtesy of Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, the former of whom might have served the movie better by appearing in it than by writing it. Thornton is a decent screenwriter — the Academy obviously thought so, awarding his Sling Blade — and he and Epperson contributed a valuable film noir entry in 1992, One False Move. But The Gift feels as if the duo had written it before One False Move — it carries the stale odor of the trunk, and it trades complexity for complication. Such an amalgam of Southern-gothic clichés could have been fun if handled with wit and juice, but Raimi isn’t that kind of director any more. He proceeds as though each scene deserved humorless precision.

Cate Blanchett doesn’t quite make the movie worth seeing, but she does make herself worth seeing in it. She plays Annie Wilson, a Georgia psychic who reads fortunes for the troubled locals. Among her clientele are Valerie (Hilary Swank), who routinely displays fresh wounds from her despicable husband Donnie (Keanu Reeves), and a discombobulated mechanic named Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi), whose suicidal impulses have something to do with his father. It would’ve been more fun if Annie were a bogus psychic, or at least a genuinely caring person who counsels people under the guise of fortune-telling, but apparently she’s on the level. It’s not long before she’s having nightmarish visions of local tramp Katie Holmes and the waterlogged fate that may be in store for her.

Holmes goes out of the picture fast, so that we don’t have to worry about her painful accent except in flashbacks, and the movie allegedly gets down to business: Annie’s visions have led the police to the vicious Donnie, who is fingered for the murder, but Annie’s not so sure. Ah, irony! The guy you think is the killer isn’t actually the killer. Okay, who is it, then? Is it the vengeful Valerie, hoping to get her husband sent up for a long stretch? Is it the dead girl’s fiancé (Greg Kinnear), a milquetoast principal? Is it the unstable Buddy? Is it the attorney (Gary Cole) who liked to meet Holmes for a quick bang in the office? Is it anyone we remotely care about? To this, at least, I can render an honest answer: No.

The Gift becomes a cruelly tedious whodunit, unredeemed by the local color of its setting (at times it’s like a supernatural, made-for-TV version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). Except for poor Giovanni Ribisi, prompted to slobber all over the camera (he must never be asked to abandon his deadpan cool to this extent again), the actors acquit themselves competently, giving the naturalistic, television-level performances Raimi seems to require these days. (Watching Hilary Swank, I couldn’t help thinking of her Brandon Teena with a wig on. She may pay a heavy price for that brilliant performance.) Keanu Reeves, you may have heard, acts his ass off as the scary husband. He does, but he also overdoes the character’s redneck white-trashness, letting his voice slide into a deep Georgia rumble and generally overdoing Donnie’s violent hatefulness to the point where you wonder why the cops didn’t put him away long ago.

Blanchett does as much as her considerable talent will allow, but in the end she’s beating her head against a flawless martyr role, a lone woman whom nobody will believe — until they believe her wrongly, after which nobody believes her some more. She’s also given Greg Kinnear as a love interest, and though Kinnear is a deft light comedian, you can’t picture him with a woman like Cate Blanchett, who deserves a hot and funny guy to be sultry and playful with. Kinnear can be funny, but he’s well-cast as a dull principal, and gives a performance to match. Much better, in a small but winning role, is the fine character actor J.K. Simmons, appearing in the middle film of his Raimi trilogy (he was in For Love of the Game and would later be in Spider-Man). Perhaps best known for his loathsome Nazi convict Vern Schillinger on HBO’s Oz, Simmons has a way of investing his dialogue with casual but powerful authority (which makes his racist grumblings on Oz that much more appalling). He appears here as the skeptical town sheriff, who at crucial points of tension takes a meaningful pause, as if musing about the murder case, and then demands to know who ate the last eclair or whether anyone brought a Thermos of coffee. Aside from the unintentional laughs earned by Ribisi and Holmes, Simmons is the movie’s only lifeline to humor.

I’d almost rather not write about The Gift — it does hurt to be slamming a director whose past films (the Evil Dead trilogy, Darkman) are so dear to my heart. But if Raimi is going to do such a perfunctory thriller, can’t he at least work up some brooding poetry? His handling of Annie’s visions smacks of too many made-for-cable movies, and some of it feels left over from What Lies Beneath. (Raimi does permit one moment of spooky beauty, when a single bright spill of blood creeps down Cate Blanchett’s pale cheek.) Towards the finish, the wrong side of our brains is engaged — the dank atmosphere and what passes for characterization aren’t allowed to enfold us, because we’re too busy second-guessing the plot. By the time a deus ex machina in the form of a convenient apparition comes to save the day, most people will have thoroughly given up on the movie.

Who would have thought Sam Raimi could have made a film in which the dead are harmless, even helpful? For a backwoods supernatural thriller, The Gift is only slightly more frightening than For Love of the Game. Gone are the malicious trees of The Evil Dead, which seemed to have a horrid life of their own even before they started ripping into people; the woods in this movie are just window dressing. So is everything else, including the director.