Sean Penn’s taut The Pledge (2001) is buoyed by a fierce performance by Jack Nicholson as Jerry, a retired police officer, obsessed with a case that most agree has been solved. It is the deconstruction of the movie cliché of the cop nobody believes in, working on a hunch. Whether Jerry’s hunch ends up being right or wrong is left somewhat ambiguous but that doesn’t matter. This is a movie about paranoia and the difficulty of having a man think like a criminal for his entire adult life and then asking him to immediately stop.
The Pledge (2001) – Sean Penn
It’s Jerry’s last day on the force and a crime is discovered during his retirement party. Out of a sense of duty he follows his colleagues to the scene. An eight-year-old girl has been brutally murdered. It falls to Jerry to tell the victim’s parents. The distraught mother implores Jerry to promise her he will find the killer, providing a crucifix made by her daughter for Jerry to swear by. Nicholson’s response is mysterious. He gives his word meekly, he doesn’t seem overly filled with conviction, but he doesn’t seem to be brushing the mother off either. He seems almost possessed, compelled to make this promise. He seems weary in a scene in which he has used his stoic sturdiness as a way of calming a grieving mother and an angry father.
Soon the cops have picked up a guy with prior convictions and evidence that link him to the crime. He is mentally stunted in some way and is played by Benicio Del Toro with the usual underlying violence. The slick cop succeeding Jerry, Stan (Aaron Eckhart), coaxes is a confession out of him, but it’s unclear how much Del Toro’s character understands about which crime is being discussed. Not long after the suspect has killed himself, Stan feels like he’s got a closed case but Jerry isn’t satisfied.
Jerry discovers that there had been two nearly identical murders in the area over the last ten years and that if they were all committed by the same person, that person couldn’t be the Del Toro character. The police department more or less tells Jerry to get a life and enjoy his retirement. Jerry moves out to a rural area and buys a gas station strategically placed between the sites of the crimes. Despite the crazed reason for his decision, eventually he begins letting go of his own investigation until he becomes involved with a waitress in town (Robin Wright) and her daughter, Chrissy (Pauline Roberts) who fits the physical description of the previous three victims.
From there, Jerry slides into madness as his paranoia makes him firmly aware of every man who comes in contact with Chrissy, arranging for a swingset to be built in the visible front yard as opposed to the more spacious back. What’s ironic is that the only time Chrissy herself feels in danger is when meeting Jerry for the first time, and the movie leaves us guessing as to whether Jerry gets involved with the waitress because of a real emotional attachment or as a way to get close to Chrissy, who he thinks he can use as bait. Jerry’s obsession is entirely self-motivated; the mother he made the pledge to is only given her one scene. It’s possible that she believes, as the police department does, that the killer was found and killed himself. The only pressure on Jerry is from the instincts that made him a good cop but now aren’t necessary and thus can run rampant.
Jerry visits two people to get help during his investigation: the father of one of the earlier victims (Mickey Rourke) who should act as a window into Jerry’s future, and a doctor played by Helen Mirren who Jerry visits to learn something about the psychology of one of the victims, but she quickly intuits that something might be wrong with the investigator. When he visits Rourke’s character, we still believe we are watching a police procedural, but by the time he arrives at Mirren’s, we know we’re watching something else.
The Pledge reminded me of Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter (2011), a movie about another obsessive that I admired with certain reservations. Certainly Nicholson’s performance made me think of Michael Shannon’s in the latter picture. Both actors share an inherent distance from reality. In Nicholson’s case that distance can be used to both charming and disturbing ends. In Shannon’s, I’ve only yet found unease.
Soon enough, Jerry thinks he’s found his man, and we realize that he is more than willing to offer up someone he’s been pretending to care about in the vague name of justice and his personal vindication. I thought, as I did with Take Shelter, the ending of The Pledge was a mistake. It suggests that Jerry was absolutely right, but that fate will keep him from ever realizing it; it seems exploitative in a movie that is already abusing our inherent anxiety about children in danger. Is the movie arguing that obsession is right as Jerry is justified in the end? Is it saying that Jerry’s investigation is meaningless because the issue by chance is resolved entirely outside of Jerry’s actions? The movie is thought-provoking enough on its own; the ending seems tacked on just to be mean. Despite this, The Pledge is a good movie, with good performances all around, but particularly in the center by Nicholson as a man that can’t give it up.