Without having read any of the publicity material available about this production, I sat down in a comfy seat in a cinema in Cannes, of all places, to see a film called The Pledge. We open with a fat child on a snowmobile in the rural Mid-West. His vehicle gets bogged down in the snow and he unwittingly finds himself on the scene of a murder – and the victim is an eight-year-old girl.
The police are called and it transpires that none of the law officers have summoned the courage to tell the girl’s family of her murder. Enter the retiring Jack Nicholson, who ends up doing the deed. The emotional mother makes him promise that he will capture the killer, and he soon finds himself devoting all his energy to fulfilling this pledge.
As one of millions who’ve seen many a fine Jack Nicholson performance, from his early days in The Shining and One Flew Over The Cuckoos’ Nest to his Oscar for As Good As It Gets, I was taken aback during The Pledge by a hitherto rarely seen streak he has presumably buried all this time – he can act subtley. His performance here is something like what we might have expected from the likes of Robert Duvall – old duffer who is pleasant to people and almost by accident saves the day, if you will. That we know this is the man who spoke the line “Here’s Johnny” while wielding an axe for Stanley Kubrick makes his performance here all the more compelling.
Nicholson is not the only talking point here, however, for it would be unfair to overlook the fact that The Pledge is very much Sean Penn’s film. Madonna’s ex has, temporarily at least, turned his attention from acting to screenwriting, producing and, crucially here, directing, and he displays an impressive grasp on proceedings. If anything, at the beginning of the movie he has a tendancy to direct with some overkill, stuffing the screen full of clever cinematic tecniques which do not always mean much, but his handling of a nightclub scene is exemplary, and his screenwriting (with his two partners) perhaps more realistically reflects the language of rural America than any other recent film set in such a location. He can’t be too bad as a producer either, considering the number of big names who’ve ended up in this film, some in very small parts. Helen Mirren as a psychiatrist is almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-her, while Vanessa Redgrave is powerful and moving in the time she appears, which amounts to a few minutes.
Penn has obviously decided here to show warts and all, exposing the Mid-West to a remarkably incisive human study. Robin Wright Penn is far from glamourous here as a mother fighting aside the obstacles life leaves in her path with heroic stoicism, not least a wife-beating husband. When she and her daughter are taken under Nicholson’s wing at his newly-acquired petrol station (the previous owner, Harry Dean Stanton, fills another cameo role), he gets personally entwined in solving the crime of who killed the first girl.
The Pledge is a remarkable film for many reasons, not least because of its humanity towards those society would so readily sneer at, here exampled by Nicholson. Let us hope Sean Penn directs many more films – on the strength of this he has a rather fine talent in addition to his acting.