Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Pledge


Dir: Sean Penn (The Crossing Guard; The Indian Runner)

Well intentioned but ultimately failed entry into the psychological crime drama genre. A retired policeman can't shake the feeling that they got the wrong guy on his last case, a brutal murder of a little girl. His search soon grows into an obsession, and threatens to draw his family into danger.

Penn foreshadows where this is going in the opening scene of the film, where a slovenly Jack Nicholson sits before an abandoned gas station muttering to himself random fragments of gibberish. The journey to that point is a bit like "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." But there, the march was inexorable to the end, a dead-on rendering of the psychological effects of greed and mistrust. Here, the story is much more ambiguous; Nicholson appears to be correct in his theory, and yet he takes actions in pursuit of his obsession that place himself and his family is all sorts of jeopardy. Is he keen? Is he crazy? Is it both?

This uncertainty might have been the point, but it is also a problem for the viewer. At times The Pledge feels purposefully ambiguous, like we are supposed to question Nicholson's judgement from the get-go. Or that could be a product of flaws in the narrative that prevent us from really getting to understand the characters. I feel that a flawed attempt at the former left us in the world of the latter. And getting inside the minds of the characters is the sole point of a film like this that explores the inner psyche.

There is, though, lots to like about the film as well. Jack is, of course, very good, although his physical attractiveness pushes the bounds of reality in the story. Penn knows his way around a camera, and the visual images of the film are its best feature. He uses a few tricks that add seasoning but refuse to dominate the direction in a gimmicky way. Benicio del Toro makes a bizarre cameo as the first suspect, surreal almost in his portrayal of a crazy Indian.

The level of talent here commands attention, and I wonder if Penn decides to keep directing that we might look back on this and see the promise of his future. But even good acting and direction cannot overcome a script that fails to connect, and I for one must admit that this movie failed to connect with me.

I give it a B.