The Pledge
directed by Sean Penn
(Warner Brothers, 2001)

The Pledge, with Jack Nicholson and Helen Mirren, takes me back to at least a hundred other films.

I've been a Nicholson fan ever since he defended Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, and I've been in love with Mirren ever since I saw her in Cal, a low-key Irish film from the mid-'80s. (We first "met" at a screening of Oh Lucky Man! more than a decade earlier, but nothing came of it, probably because I'd brought a date.)

But Nicholson and Mirren were only two of the names that drew me to the box that contains The Pledge. There's Vanessa Redgrave, Sam Shepard, Robin Wright Penn, Mickey Rourke and Harry Dean Stanton, the Dean of Weirdness and one of my all-time favorite movie actors.

It was as if all my old friends had gotten together to make a movie. But it wasn't old friends who caught my eye when I popped the tape into my VCR. It was a series of riveting images, tied together by long, sad fiddle drones, and a soaring monosyllabic soprano.

I just had to know who'd shot and scored this film. As it turns out, it was Chris Menges, who won cinematography Oscars for The Killing Fields and The Mission, and Hans Zimmer, who's written music for everything from Muppet Treasure Island to Pearl Harbor and won an Oscar for his Lion King score.

But in the end, it's not names I go to the cinema for: it's to be jolted out of my everyday experience by something that tugs at my insides. And The Pledge just might take this year's Oscar for tugging.

Nicholson plays Jerry Black, a Reno detective who's hours from retirement when he promises the mother of a young girl who's been raped and murdered that he will see that the killer is brought to justice.

Everyone else is willing to blame it all on a mentally retarded Native American (Benicio Del Toro) with a long rap sheet and little ability to express himself. But Black can't buy it.

So The Pledge becomes a kind of anti-Les Miserables, in which Black's obsession with finding the real culprit dominates his life, threatens his relationships with friends and co-workers, puts an innocent child in extreme danger and sends cinema fans under the couch covers on more than one occasion.

The Pledge is serious cinema, a psychological thriller that eschews cheap tricks for real terror and classic tension-building. It features superb performances in front of and behind the camera, and it handles a squeamish subject with taste and care.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]
Rambles: 8 December 2001

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