The Pledge (2001)

Directed by Sean Penn

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Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) is a retiring police officer who isn’t ready to let go.  On the night of his retirement party the body of a young girl is discovered in the woods, and it’s Jerry who shoulders the emotional burden of first notifying the girl’s parents and then promising to find the killer.

This is a story that I think struggles to recreate the allure and/or simple heart of films like Paul Schrader’s Affliction (1997) and Bruce Beresford’s Tender Mercies (1983).  The former is about an obsessed, disgraced police officer who gets far too deep into what turns out to be a simple crime, and the latter is about a disgraced country singer who starts life anew within a modest, roadside homestead.

In The Pledge Jerry tries to let go of this most recent heinous crime but fails to resist getting himself pulled back in.  At the same time he does succeed in starting life anew, just like in Tender Mercies he takes up work at a roadside gas station and effectively adopts a much younger woman and her young child.

This film tries to walk the line in between these two ideas, of a man obsessed and a man reborn.  It suggests that even within his rebirth Jerry is still at his core the man he once was.  Part of the problem, I felt, was that this idea of a retired cop who can’t let go is itself a bit of a trope.  What I enjoyed so much about Affliction was the way the character’s desperate need to solve the crime, like with all of these stories, outweighed the objective truth of what happened.  In the end that Nick Nolte character created his own truth, seeing only what he wanted to see rather than what really was.

It’s a level of darkness this film toys with but isn’t quite ready to dive into.  Conversely Tender Mercies contains a deep empathy that I don’t think The Pledge quite captures.  The complete and utter innocence of the forged family, living in relative isolation, works in that film in a way it didn’t seem to here.  Part of that, I suppose, is to the film’s credit, a way of showing how Jerry has one foot in each lane.

It would be an interesting character study if the character felt more original, but as it is all I can see are the seams.  The story, a sort of melodramatic thriller, is well put together, and the acting is fine, but there always seemed to be something missing at the core of the story.

When the film opens, with Jerry unhappily surveying the relics of a life forgotten or taken for granted, he feels a lot like the Nicholson character in About Schmidt, but that Alexander Payne film framed him in a way to mock him.  ‘Schmidt’ quickly revealed himself to be a pathetic man whose retirement highlights to us just how little he ever lived his own life.

Jerry Black feels at first like he’s there to be mocked.  There’s something amusing and tragic about him at the same time, just from the way he so silently seems to harbor all these grievances, all this sadness and all this disdain for the younger man who will replace him (Aaron Eckhart).  When we first meet Jerry he is a man with just about nothing.

And I can’t quite tell if that enhances or detracts from his apparent sincerity when it comes to looking for the young girl’s killer.  The girl’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) pulls out a cross the girl made and insists Jerry promise her that he will find the killer.  The aging cop takes it very seriously, and the moment amounts to a curse that will hang over his head for the rest of his life.

Maybe if we had some more familiarity with Jerry then we could understand more about why this affects him so much.  Or maybe it’s important that, as it is, we know so little about him.  It might just be that he has always felt cursed, abandoned or otherwise abused.  He shows no real connection to the people around him, not his secretary, not his replacement (who is deliberately presented as a cocky, self-righteous son of a bitch) and certainly no one in his personal life.

I suppose it’s an effective portrait the more I think on it, but upon watching the film it just felt ripped from other movies.  That idea, of a cop who takes his work home with him, it’s been done before, and the fact that he’s surrounded by such broad caricatures (mostly Eckhart), didn’t help at all.

The Pledge is a tragedy, and to give the film credit it is trying something new within its remix of other films and genres.  It’s a story unconcerned with plot, a story where character most definitely wins out, and yet the end, a reveal for the audience which escapes the characters, feels forced and melodramatic, an intended catharsis which I don’t think in any way helps the story.

Jerry is a man like Nolte in Affliction.  He believes he needs to solve this crime to save his soul.  This is a film buried in his tortured perspective, but should he have really been this tortured all along then it seems unlikely he’d be able to lead a life with any joy, which he does.

He meets a waitress, Lori (Robin Wright) and starts a life with her and her daughter.  This portion of the film is meant to establish what Jerry has to lose and which will come into play in the film’s climactic sequence.  For the film to have dramatic stakes it needs to build up this relationship, but to stay true to Jerry’s character it seems he would be unable to forge any substantial relationships so long as he feels so cursed.

Where Affliction works, I think, is that the Nick Nolte character has everything at the start of the film and slowly loses it as the story moves along.  He is such a tragic, deranged character that there is no space in his life to build new relationships.  He is completely and utterly incapable of such a thing, certainly of empathy.  The film then is just a slow downward spiral as we become more acquainted with the darkness in him and his father and see the ways he is, well, afflicted.

The Pledge tries to instill the film and its character with such darkness but so too to show how much life he has left in him.  To me it’s a contradiction of the character, as if Jerry has two sides that choose to reveal themselves when the story demands it.

Up Next: Free Solo (2018), The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

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