The Pledge

Nearly a decade ago, on January 19th, 2001, a film directed by Sean Penn was released. The cast was very impressive starting with a nearly unrecognizable Benicio Del Toro who was joined by Aaron Eckhart, Patricia Clarkson, Tom Noonan, Helen Mirren, Michael O’Keefe, Mickey Rourke, Vanessa Redgrave, Sam Shepard, Robin Wright, and … Jack Nicholson.

To be honest, I didn’t know anything about this film when it popped up in the middle of the suggested film list for me provided by Netflix. The title is The Pledge.

Simply, Jack plays a retiring sheriff in Reno, Nevada. While he and his friends were at his retirement party, a gruesome murder of a young child was discovered. Jack only had hours to go before his official retirement date, but he went out on the call.

A little 8 year girl had been brutally raped and killed. When no one wanted to go and tell the parents, Jack playing Jerry Black, stepped up and went to see them. This is when we got one of the most unusual shots in the history of film.

The Larsons, Margaret and Duane, (Clarkson and O’Keefe) were the parents of the slain little girl. They ran a turkey farm. We see them at work in the turkey ‘barn’ as Nicholson arrives. This barn is about the size of a basketball court and filled with young turkeys who are just milling about  in all their wall-to-wall splendor. Nicholson enters at the far end of the shot and he has to wade through these thousands of live turkeys. We hear the sounds of these gobblers but we don’t hear Nicholson or the Larsons. From our perspective it may as well have been pantomine.

Nicholson as Black eventually makes a pledge to Margaret Larsen – that he will capture the killer and bring him to justice. But Black is retiring, the evidence doesn’t provide much in the way of clues, and the trail gets cold.

A few years pass – Jerry Black has purchased a gas station/general store/residence in the same general triangular area where at least three of these unsolved murders have occurred. Soon enough he meets Robin Wright who is a bartender/waitress at a local tavern. And Robin as Lori has her own 8 year old daughter.

What Sean Penn has set up for us is partly a family drama, partly a mystery, and partly the story of a man who won’t rest until he is able to honor his pledge.

Mirren, Redgrave, Rourke, O’Keefe, Clarkson, Shepard. Eckhart, and Del Toro all do their acting in what are most easily described as one scene performances.  Make that gems of one scene performances.

Jack Nicholson plays a man whose pledge becomes an obsession. But without his usual bag of tricks. Jack’s face is one of the most expressive in all of filmdom, but here he has toned it down by about 90’s percent, yet he is still exciting to watch. Maybe what makes Jack such a thrill to watch is in the expectations. What kind of smirk, snarl, or smile will Jack offer us? But here he is following Penn’s instructions rather than making it up.

The film is slow to develop but if you’re paying attention you will notice that Director Sean Penn has given us an excellent film. Though we are led to believe that this film is filmed somewhere in the Sierra Nevada mountains area, Penn actually shot the film in Canada’s far western province, British Columbia. The mountains, the lakes, the forests all have a part in setting the not only the seasons, the locations, but also the moods.

Penn’s work in this film is certainly praiseworthy. This might be the forgotten Nicholson role but Jack shines, but not as Jack. Here he’s just an actor. But Jack is always more than just that, even when he’s not trying to be,  so he must be given some accolades. It’s still Nicholson, but this time, he  is definitely different.


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