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Movie Review

The Pledge

MPAA Rating: R for violence, a strong sex scene, and some language

Reviewed by: Curtis D. Smith

Very Offensive
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Primary Audience:
2 hr. 3 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
January 19, 2001
Relevant Issues
Jack Nicholson in “The Pledge”

Are we living in a moral Stone Age?
Philosopher Christina Sommers charges that today’s young people are suffering from “cognitive moral confusion.” They not only have trouble distinguishing right from wrong—they question whether such standards even exist. The threat this moral relativism poses to society is greater than any external danger. [more…]

Featuring: Michael O'Keefe, Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Sam Shepard
Director: Sean Penn
Producer: Elie Samaha, Michael Fitzgerald, Sean Penn
Distributor: Warner Brothers

Actor Benicio Del Toro said recently in a television interview that he looks for three things when he considers a film role: A great script, a great cast and a great director.

His bit part as a mentally depraved Indian in “The Pledge” seems to support that philosophy—well, two-thirds of it anyway. The cast and director are firmly in place and seem to do an affable job but the questionable script establishes a chasm between the movie being a December Oscar-bait release and a mid-January toss out. Directed by Sean Penn, and boasting a cast that would make just about any studio executive or director drool, “The Pledge” seems as if it would have it all. And from time to time the story does touch upon greatness, as does Penn’s eye for subject matter, but something apparently got lost in the translation between Friedrich Duerrenmatt’s namesake novel and the bland, distasteful screenplay Penn chose to shoot.

The all-too familiar premise has Detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) at his retirement party just two hours into his last day when a call comes in to his cronies to investigate the brutal murder of a nine-year-old girl. Drawn out of duty to help with the case, Jerry is chosen to inform the parents of the victim’s murder and thus find himself pledging to the broken-hearted mother that he will catch the killer.

However, hot-shot detective Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart) squeezes a confession out of a mentally erratic witness (Del Toro) who promptly commits suicide and therefore closes the case. Dissatisfied with Krolak’s conclusion, Jerry sets out to find the real killer and fulfill his vow. His investigation takes him to other small town locations and before long Jerry has put together what looks like a serial case involving three or four eight—and nine-year-old blonde girls who were wearing red dresses when they were murdered. He presents the evidence to his old boss (Sam Shepard) but his theories fall on deaf ears.

Robin Wright Penn Frustrated with the system, Jerry buys a ramshackle gas station near the hub of the crime scenes hoping to someday fill the tank of the would-be murderer and perhaps capture him. But over time the ex-cop finds himself growing comfortable with his new surroundings and a friendship struck between he and a roadside waitress (Robin Wright Penn) starts to put him at ease.

All is well until Jerry realizes his girlfriend’s daughter closely fits the murder victim profile and he subconsciously moves her into the position of being the killer’s live bait. Using information from the last victim’s grandmother (Vanessa Redgrave), a psychologist (Helen Mirren) and the father of a missing girl (Mickey Rourke), Jerry begins creating a scenario the killer can’t resist.

what’s most obvious about this film is that there are gaps in the plot that only a novel could fill, and yet there are several remarkable qualities to what this movie really is: A character study of Jerry. His fishing hobby offers a noticeable parallel to his willingness to use a child for bait and his infrequent senile babbling points toward an inevitable mental breakdown. Also, bouts with alcoholism and chain smoking make for a greatly flawed character who on the surface seems to be just an ordinary, average man.

The film explores the wickedness of child molestation and murder but also delves into the questionable ways in which Jerry goes about solving the case. His decision to sleep with the emotionally vulnerable waitress (which he could have avoided had he not let her live with him) is what starts him down a slippery slope of deceitfulness that worsens with his growing obsession. Rather than find the killer the proper way Jerry is consumed by his vow to find the killer which forces his integrity to slip for the sake of its resolution. In effect, Jerry believes the ends justify the means.

This is why God’s word tells us to exercise integrity in all things—so that we don’t justify our actions by their outcome. Although he seeks a virtuous conclusion to the investigation, the film’s lead character falls victim to his corrupt morals as in Proverbs 11:3 where it says, “the integrity of the upright will guide them, but the falseness of the treacherous will destroy them.”

While Penn and screenwriters Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski have managed to offer a few pioneering ideas in what has become a stale concept, the too-frequent and too-gratuitous display of butchered, bloody bodies of young girls is quite unnecessary.

Perhaps it’s the usual problem that exists between book and film. Typically, things like inner thought, attention to detail and subtlety in books are replaced with long, puzzling stretches of silence, overstated camera shots and blatant transparency in the movies.

Avoiding harsh images and ethics in “The Pledge” is near impossible and were it not for a shrewdly filmed surprise ending that back-handedly solves the protagonist’s problem this predominantly trite film would be a complete waste of time.

Viewer Comments
I have mixed feelings about “The Pledge”. Jack Nicholson did a fantastic job in a film that was, no doubt, HIS. The film wasn’t that big on plot, it was more of a character study. I would compare it to Affliction. However, I found Affliction much more compelling. As well, I felt that Sean Penn got a little too camera happy. I saw too many shots of Jack Nicholson fishing with all of these mountains behind him. it’s not that they weren’t nice shots, but it seems like Penn just wanted to extend the film when it was pointless to do so. Like I said, it was Nicholson’s film. He was in almost every scene, I think. I really didn’t find much objectionable in the movie. Some may be alarmed by the fact that they chose a “Christian” to be the bad guy. I really wasn’t offended. It wasn’t like they were trying to belittle Christians, it was simply part of the character. [Just remember The Shawshank Redemption, the warden] The film, after starting off pretty good, just seemed to have gotten lost. I think it could’ve been a little bit shorter, and some of the writing could’ve used some work. I wanted it to be a bit more dynamic than it was. However, the ending was very, very good. I can’t really say, run out and see the movie, because there are many other films that I think are much better. [Traffic, Snatch, Thirteen Days]
My Ratings: [Better than Average / 3½]
—Jason Eaken, age 17
This movie showed the raped and butchered bodies of three 8-9 yr old girls. The grusome and very unnecesary pictures have not yet left my mind’s eye. “Focus on what is PURE”!
My Ratings: [Extremely Offensive / 2½]
—Molly, age 20
It was long, too long it seemed. I kept waiting for something, anything to happen. It was a dark depressing film which had some beautiful scenery but very little story content worth mentioning. If I could go back I would not have gone in the first place. Frankly I’ve seen better film on teeth.
My Ratings: [Very Offensive / 3½]
—Rod Davis, age 53
This movie had the basis for a good plot, but failed miserably. It drug on and on with just scenery while beautiful was mostly just taking up movie time. The first victims were “religious” with strange theology, and in the end the main villain was portrayed as a Christian zealot with perversion. This movie is filled with anti-Christian bigotry and the ending makes be believe the producers have had to be on cocaine to make an ending that bad. I would not recommend this movie to anyone, and I would not have attended if I had any idea how bad it was. I’m sick of the anti-Christian bias in Hollywood, and this was full of it.
My Ratings: [Average / 1½]
—David Williams, age 49
Movie Critics
…References are made throughout the film to prayer, Christian beliefs and the Bible…
—Preview Family Movie and TV Review
…Drama will fuel the natural fears of all parents in the audience, and no relief is offered…
—Todd McCarthy, Variety
…at least 8 uses of the “f” word…
This movie was okay up until a point. If only Jack had turned out to be the killer, instead of a crazy man. That would have made it more interesting, for the ending. Overall, the movie was long, boring, dull, needed more twists, bad acting most of the time, and offensive to any parent. Jack, you need to do better next time. No more mental characters. As-good-as-it-gets should’ve been the last one.
My Ratings: [Somewhat Offensive / 2]
—Mark Benson, age 27
I really enjoyed The Pledge. It is a murder mystery but it is by very little means conventional. The way that Nicholson goes about searching for clues is highly intelligent and the murder in the film is not your typical slick interesting murder but a savagely brutal crime committed by an obviously sick or evil person. But the savageness is explored rather than exploited something films like 1999’s The General’s Daughter did. The film is interesting because many scenes can be read two ways. For example, when Nicholson says the swing set should be out front of the gas station instead of in the back yard he says it is to keep a closer eye on the girl when it could be in reality part of a sting to catch the killer. The “bait” issue is one that would suggest that Nicholson’s character is underhanded but the reality is that he seems to be doing it subconsciously and not really realizing what he is doing. He clearly loves the little girl and maybe he feels that he must do everything possible to catch this killer to protect her. The murder is so horrible that he can’t forget it and certain triggers. Everytime he sees a car matching what is possibly the killer’s car it brings the memory back and causes Nicholson to see suspects everywhere. For example, the local minister who is a pillar of the community and leads youth services at the local church becomes a suspect. He is tall (like the killer’s description) and drives a car similar to the killer’s car’s description but most of all he seems just a little TOO PERFECT for Nicholson’s taste. I loved the acting in The Pledge and I loved the fisherman’s metaphor. The ending is filled with sad, bitter irony in that killer is taken care of but Nicholson never knows this. So in his mind this horrible sick man is still out there. The Pledge goes far beyond being a mere murder mystery and tells the story of how the case affected the man investigating it. There is a scene in The Pledge where the mother of the murdered girl says “How can such devils exist
My Ratings: [SLIGHTLY Objectionable / 5]
—Andrew, age 24
I had mixed feelings after seeing this film. I thought that there were some very good elements to the film such as the story, the music, the character development, the environmental visuals. All of these element worked in harmony to paint a surreal picture. However, everytime they flashed those photos of mutilated little girls, I couldn’t help but become extremely uncomfortable. When will Hollywood realize that we don’t need “in your face” violence and depravity to know what depravity is. Give us a little more credit than that! The story would have been just as good if those awful photos weren’t a part of it. The ending is not what one would expect. And I suppose I left the theater feeling unsatisfied. However, it was refreshing to see something different rather than the same old plot climax and resolution. I really wouldn’t recommend this film at all due to the graphic nature of some scenes. A man is shown after having just committed suicide and there are some photograhps of some little girls who were mutilated.
My Ratings: [Very Offensive / 4½]
—Scott, age 31