In 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.