The Pledge (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I have been saying for some time that Sean Penn will some day be one of the best directors in the world. In fact, I liked his direction in The Crossing Guard, although I thought his script was lacking.

This time, he didn't write the screenplay, so his sensitive and often offbeat direction makes this very close to a masterpiece. 

Penn's direction was excellent:

1. He doesn't let his visuals get in the way of a clear narrative.

2. But his visuals are imaginative and often stunning.

3. He knows how to let the actors do their thing.

4. He's not afraid to reach deep into emotions, or to let his actors do so.

Here's the idea. On the day of his retirement, a police detective responds to a call that involves the cruel death of a little girl. Because nobody else will do it, he ends up delivering the news to the parents. (A spectacularly effective scene set in a massive warehouse full of turkeys). In the course of meeting with the parents, he promises the mother that he will bring the killer to justice.


This pledge not only spoils his retirement, but it becomes the singular obsession of his life. The police quickly find a mentally retarded Indian, get him to confess, charge him, he commits suicide, case closed. But something smells wrong to the experienced detective. He sees that this murder is apparently the work of the same guy who killed two other little girls in the previous seven years, both in very similar circumstances. During one of those unsolved murders, the Indian was incarcerated and could not have done it. The detective (Jack Nicholson, in one of his best performances) just knows that the killer is still at large, so he keeps working on the case long after his retirement.

He goes so far as to cancel his retirement plans, and buy an old gas station in a place centrally located to the three murders, so that he can keep an eye out for the killer.

At the same time, a young woman and her daughter find their way into Nicholson's life, and he is an ideal, doting, surrogate father to the little girl. But he does something obsessive. He knows that his little stepdaughter fits the exact profile of the murdered little girls, and he knows that the killer will only kill little girls who wear red dresses. He allows the mother to buy the little girl a red dress without warning her. Then he convinces the mother to build her girl a swing-set in the front yard next to the street, and she just swings out there as bait to the killer, except Nicholson is the only one who knows that she is the bait.

As it turns out, Nicholson was right. We can see from certain common elements from the previous killings, that he has correctly identified a time when his little girl will be meeting with the killer, and he arranges for an entire SWAT team to be there.


But the killer never shows up. In fact, we see that Mr Psycho gets in an auto accident on the very trip to the park to meet with the little girl. The cops hang out for a while, then conclude that Nicholson is a senile deluded drunk. Nicholson's girlfriend is horrified that he's used the little girl as bait, and they leave him.

In the end we see Nicholson sitting on a bench in front of his gas station, in a drunken stupor.

I had no objection to everyone thinking Nicholson was deluded, and to the identity of the killer never being clearly established to the world. Many people objected to the ending because the film had no closure. That didn't bother me. In fact, I think it was necessary to avoid closure, given the material and the real focus. I think that's the way it had to end, because the movie was about Nicholson being destroyed by his obsessive behavior, and it didn't really matter whether he was right or not. If he had been shown to corner the killer herocically and triumphantly, that might somehow have justified using the little girl for bait, and the filmmakers didn't want to do that. They didn't want to offer him that easy absolution. I believe that was the right call.

In fact, I only had one problem with the film. The ending required one of those one-in-a-trillion coincidences. What I didn't like was the fact that the damned killer just happened to die on the way from his home to the park. What are the chances of that happening? About the same as the odds of the guys tripping over the victim's gravestone in the ending of The Crossing Guard.

That was a big flaw in the story, and a very weak plot element that should not slip past a great director. They could have found another way to get to the same ending. The killer could have somehow gotten wind of the SWAT team, and simply avoided the meeting, which would have left the movie exactly the same in every way except for the unbelievable plot point.

But setting that aside for just a second, this is an exceptionally good film, with a devastating emotional impact. The visuals are excellent and unique, the music is used well, and the acting is tremendous. Actors love to work for Penn because he knows their strengths and lets them act, without stepping on them with F/X and music and jump cuts. Some of the greatest actors in the world appear here, and Penn lets each of them have a good moment or two.

  • Vanessa Redgrave, as the grandmother of the latest victim
  • Helen Mirren, as a psychiatrist
  • Benicio del Toro, as the Indian
  • Mickey Rourke, as the father of one of the missing girls. The Mickster is very good in this.
  • Sam Shepherd
  • Harry Dean Stanton
  • Robin Wright (Mrs Penn)

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

  • no significant features

Sean Penn has been indicating for some time that he wants to leave acting and direct for a living. There is no question in my mind that he can do it. If this film had been made by an unknown European, it would already be hailed by film buffs as an existential masterpiece. Penn should have used some pseudonym like Lasse Nilssen or Pierre Soufflet, and he'd now be considered the up-and-coming genius of the world cinema.

He may be that anyway, even if it isn't acknowledged yet.

I do have two regrets about that:

1. I don't want him to leave acting, because he's one of the best actors ever to step in front of a camera.

2. I don't want him to keep making these totally depressing and non-commercial films. This movie is brilliant, but it's one serious two hour downer, and is not going to cut it with the date-and-popcorn crowd. Art is worthwhile, but there's no way the studios are going to continue to approve $45 million budgets to make art films, Nicholson or no Nicholson.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Apollo 75.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 71% positive overall, and an impressive 86% from the top critics.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.0, Apollo users a very impressive 85/100. These scores are consistent with the critical consensus.
  • With their dollars ... a minor bomb. Armed with some scintillating reviews, it proceeded to max out at $17 million domestic gross. For some movies, that would be fine (those are typical numbers for Woody Allen or Altman), but this one cost $45 million, and needed a better showing.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B.

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