In light of the acclaim for Mel Gibson’s comeback, Hacksaw Ridge, let’s take a look at the world of actor-directors. Clint Eastwood, Jodie Foster, Danny DeVito, Robert Redford and Gene Wilder are just a short list of the big names who, through artistic vision, ego, production problems or a combination of any, have had to take charge. They take all their experience working with directors and combine it with their performing abilities to yield films that, at worst, feel very personal, not the work of a studio accountant, and usually, have quality performances from the cast.
A good example is Sean Penn, an 80s Bad Boy who has directed several films. The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, Into The Wild and today´s subject, The Pledge are all films dealing with disconnect, of people who are or are becoming disenfranchised with the world and seek something else, be it positive or negative. In The Pledge, Nevada detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) hops on board a child murder case, just as he’s about to retire. When the alleged killer, a disabled man, is seemingly apprehended and then commits suicide, Black remains unconvinced that justice has been served. He then embarks on his own journey to bring the killer to justice, by any means necessary, to keep the promise he made to the dead child’s mother.
Rather than a whizz-bang revenge thriller, The Pledge plays more like a Hitchcockian mind game as you follow Black’s investigations and begin to question if his choices, often putting other lives on the line, are justified. Yes, you want to see the family get justice and for this monster to be put away, but is it worth potentially destroying the lives of others, including your own? This dichotomy is massively assisted by Nicholson in one of his last great roles as Black. He gives a masterfully grounded and subtle performance, making Black by turns empathetic and likeable, as only Jack can be, yet also driven and even sometimes, unscrupulous and unsettling. He´s a good man, but also stubborn and dogged in his methods and beliefs, even when others tell him to stop.
The rest of the talented cast are no slouch, though this is firmly Nicholson’s show. Robin Wright Penn plays Lori, a waitress and mother who becomes key to Black’s plan. She takes on the emotional crux of the movie as her daughter is the one being used by Black, and is very sympathetic. Aaron Eckhart as a colleague of Black plays well as a cocky detective, while Helen Mirren, Benicio Del Toro and Vanessa Redgrave are all in smaller roles, but are dependably strong. Special points to Patricia Clarkson as the broken mother of the murdered girl, whose emotional performance helps elevate Black’s choice more than perhaps the screenplay does.
Penn’s direction and pacing are slow yet suspenseful, creating a very uneasy atmosphere around the omnipresent killer as well as Black’s stability when he puts his bigger plan into motion. The use of Nevada itself made up of snowy fields and dense forest gives the film an isolated and cold feeling, which enhances the tension and reinforces how far Black is going, both physically and mentally.
If there are places where the film comes up short, it’s more down to an occasionally bizarre directorial quirk by Penn (such as random jump cuts or one instance of looped footage for no thematic or narrative reason), or the otherwise tight screenplay perhaps not giving enough heft towards the inciting incident and the resolution of Black’s downfall. It feels like it relies perhaps a little too heavily on the shock value of a dead child that it perhaps doesn’t spend enough time really diving into the broader effects of it on a community, or on Black himself. Yes, we see his descent into madness, but hasn’t he dealt with dozens of murders in his career? Why is this girl and the promise so important to him? You could argue the brutality of the killing, or this being his last case, but the film doesn’t make this explicit enough. For a slow burn film, it certainly rushes on starting up.
All the same, it´s a taut and tight crime drama with a fantastic lead, whose gravity compensates for any defects in the writing. If you want an example of how atmosphere and the right casting can elevate something decent to good, The Pledge definitely makes a promise worth keeping.
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