THE PLEDGE is taken by Reno police detective ‘Jerry Black’ (Jack Nicholson, 63), on the evening of his retirement party, when he tags along for one last crime scene—a ghastly one—and tells a grieving parent he will swear on his soul to find the man who butchered her little girl. Despite the quick arrest and confession of an obvious suspect, Jerry is so convinced of his hunches that he begins to put together another scenario, going so far as to buy a store in the small-town area of the crime (and several others in the same grisly fashion). Is he on to someone? Is he starting to lose it? Or both?
Sean Penn’s third go at directing, the unrelentingly grim 2001 mystery was purportedly a ‘passion project’ for Penn and Nicholson, their second teamup after 1995s The Crossing Guard, where Penn also had Jack as a man obsessed with justice over the death of a child (his own daughter in that story, victim of a drunk driver). The screenplay was crafted by Jerzy Kromolowski and his wife, Mary. Likely they were fans of the 1958 novella by Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, who also scripted the first film version that same year, Es geschah am hellichten Tag /It Happened In Broad Daylight, with an interesting cast: Heinz Rühmann, Michel Simon, Gert Fröbe and Roger Livesey. There was an Italian remake, La Promessa, with Rossano Brazzi in 1979 and a Dutch version in 1996, The Cold Light Of Day, with Richard E. Grant.
Given the subject matter, no doubt the other versions aren’t barrels of laughs, but Penn’s foray is a hard take to take. Enthralling, certainly, with its gut-twisting storyline and some sterling moments from a fine array of talent. Also an ultimately frustrating viewing experience, when you take stock of the script’s cavalier illogic. Plausibility goes out the window early and doesn’t return—the police procedures are a joke, the characters are wafer thin, their behavior viable only as acting exercises rather than providing any insight other than the skillset of the performers. Cameos do little beyond attracting attention; Sam Shepard, Patricia Clarkson, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren and Harry Dean Stanton show up so briefly they might as well not be there. There are enough red herrings to open a cannery. Penn seems to revel in discomfort as, with the exception of little Pauline Roberts, every person in the story is off-putting in one way or another. There’s egregious insertion of graphic crime scene photos (thanks, Sean, for the mangled little girls) and a cheaply exploitative bit of imagined mayhem tossed in that further cheapens what was tawdry from the outset.
Those slams registered, we concede that while Penn is heavy-handed with the material (the deck-stacked script does no favor), he displays excellent facility with his actors, and even those with scant screen time deliver in style. Having taken a four-year break after copping his third Oscar for As Good As It Gets, the new “old” Nicholson inhabits the pudgy, pensive Jerry to good effect (complete with bristle haircut), and Robin Wright (married at the time to Sean) does a fine, convincingly de-glammed turn as the abused waitress Nicholson befriends. Better is the way-off-the-rails suspect played by Benicio Del Toro, conspicuously unhinged, borderline rabid. Best of all is the quick scene with Mickey Rourke, as a victim’s father, a superlative depiction of bottomless agony. Against heavy odds, the actors make the film.
Critics were generally positive, more for the acting than script and direction, but a good number took exception to the oppressive tone, slow pacing, marked credibility lapses, editing jumps and those tasteless photos of the raped and butchered children. Certainly, the 124 minutes could have benefited from some trimming. The public didn’t bite; the worldwide gross of $29,419,000 (101st place for the year) was a death blow against the production outlay of $35,000,000.
Apart from a few shots in Reno, it was filmed mainly on location in several mountain and lakeside towns up in British Colombia. Muted, effective score is from Hans Zimmer & Klaus Badelt. With Aaron Eckhart (in unpleasant mode), Costas Mandylor (a creepy bit for no good reason), Tom Noonan (Bible Fanatic Time), Michael O’Keefe, Lois Smith, Dale Dickey, Eileen Ryan (Penn’s mother).
Provocative Penn’s downbeat directorial dibs—The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, Into The Wild and The Last Face are natural outgrowths of his dominant actor muse, and seemingly interior realm, someone fascinated by the dark & damaged all the way back to 1983s Bad Boys. Witness The Falcon And The Snowman, At Close Range, Casualties Of War, Carlito’s Way, Dead Man Walking, U Turn, Hurly Burly, Mystic River, 21 Grams, All The King’s Men, The Tree Of Life, Gangster Squad….take a pill, dude; as his less-troubled Fast Times At Ridgemont High stoner ‘Jeff Spicoli’ would lay down “Well, I’ll tell you Stu, I did battle some humongous waves! But you know, just like I told the guy on ABC, “Danger is my business!”