Sean Penn’s 2001 film of the 1958 novel The Pledge by Friedrich Dürrenmatt is a portrait of a policeman’s self-destruction. It is not an action-filled thriller. It is not “about” catching or stopping a serial killer.
The man who entices and murders eight-year-old girls becomes the focus of Detective Jerry Black’s life after his official retirement from the Reno police force. We have seen and heard before that detectives have to be able to think like criminals to thwart them. We have seen and heard of more than a few breaking laws to uphold the rule of law, to destroy villages to save them, etc. Such dangers need to be regularly considered, but the policeman metamorphosing into what he (and sometimes she) is trying to eliminate is a relatively minor component of the disintegration of (ex-) Detective Black.
After the most bravura cinematic scene in the film — in which in a long-distance shot Detective Black (played by Jack Nicholson) crosses a barn covered with gobbling turkeys and tells the parents that their daughter has been murdered — a scene in which the audience cannot hear what is said, the scene justifying the title occurs. The dead girl’s mother coerces a promise from Detective Black that he will find the man who killed the girl. The mother demands that he swear this on his salvation, as she holds a cross made by her slain daughter.
This pledge is extremely serious to Swiss Calvinists (Dürrenmatt’s background). There is no indication that Detective Black believes that he has a salvation to pledge, though he reminds the police chief played by Sam Shepard that they are old enough to remember when promises meant something.
In my view, Jerry risks and loses his salvation not by making that pledge but by breaking another that is only implicit. Not wanting to give away the ending, I will return to interpreting what I consider a trinity of endings in a distinct section below.
First, though, some evaluative comments:
Whether it is his greatest performance since “Chinatown,” his greatest performance since “The Shining,” or his greatest performance since his Academy Award-winning performance in “As Good As It Gets” (his previous film), Jack Nicholson is exceptionally self-effacing getting very deep into the role of Jerry Black. That he can go through a whole movie without smirking is amazing, but only part of his accomplishment herein. Without the voice-over crutch that tells audiences what the perspective of so many jaded detectives is, Nicholson shows what Jerry Black is feeling.
In addition to Nicholson’s awe-inspiring performance are a series of intense performances in single-scene roles by Mickey Rourke(!), Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, and Benicio Del Toro (it could be argued that the last is in two or three scenes), and another compelling performance across a large range of emotions by Robin Penn Wright.
Personally, I would have liked there to be more about what turned Jerry Black into the person he is on his retirement day. Although it is easy to understand why he does not return to the child psychologist (played by Helen Mirren, an icon of the frustrations of catching serial killers…), it is unfortunate for Jerry Black that he did not enlist continued consultation from her.
English cinematographer Chris Menges (whose most memorable work has been in “The Mission” and “The Killing Fields”) provides some beautiful mountain and lake scenery (supposed to be Nevada, I think it is British Columbia, but the story is Swiss in origin, so who cares?). There are, perhaps, too many scenes of Jerry fishing. If so, this is the editor and director’s fault, not the cinematographer’s. However, I am not certain that these scenes and/or their length are harmful. The respites (for the audience as well as the character) arguably have a function, specifically to show that he is not completely obsessed with the killer (he is very obsessed, but not completely, you know?)
Some gimmicky camera work does not seem to me to advance the exploration of the character(s). I’m not sure if there is a technical term for the opposite of deep focus (blurry deep focus?). There are an inordinate number of shots from above, some very tight closeups, and (I think) too many lingering shots
so many fishing scenes necessary as calm, lucid interludes?
I thought there was a little too much foreshadowing, but given that a number of viewers were audibly perplexed after the screening, it is clear that what happens is opaque to some.
Composer Has Zimmer (The Lion King, As Good As It Gets, The Thin Red Line) provided rather obtrusive, sometimes obvious, but often effective music.
Late in the film it occurred to me that Jack Nicholson was back in Antonioni country. I was thinking of “The Passenger” in which he discards an old self. The photography of objects and various long shots (especially the aforementioned turkey barn one) recalled Antonioni (especially “Eclipse”). The most direct Antonioni predecessor occurred to me only later: “Blow Up.” That most commercially successful of Antonioni films was also about an obsessive attempt to figure out what happened, whether there was a crime (here, whether there is going to be another crime).
There is no doubt in my mind that Detective Black correctly identified the killer. Surely, the reason he did not show up for his rendez-vous became known to his former colleagues. But that doesn’t much matter to Jerry. At least it does not matter as much as that what he has done is very horrible, and he knows that he deserves to have lost everything by it.
I have practically no doubt that he loved both the girl and her mother. An obvious answer to Robin Wright’s final charge, “I thought you loved her,” is that he did. Human motivation is not so simple that the only two possibilities are that he loved her or he used her for bait. I think that both are true, which makes the latter more horrible. An argument could be made that he is saving not only her but some other possible target. Self-righteous policemen playing God, judging predators and taking action against them, are familiar, but not such a mixture of God and Abraham (even though he is not the biological father, I except that he has become a de jure as well as de facto father).
If I am wrong and the mother is right, what Jerry does is more horrible still, but to me the final dissolution (actually returning to and expanding upon the opening shot) only makes sense if Jerry knows that he has gambled his earthly salvation, his adopted family, to save his (quasi-)adopted daughter and her agemates. How this weighs in the equation with his pledge to the dead girl’s mother and his eternal salvation, I do not pretend to know. The original Calvinist doctrine of predestination would be a comfort in comparison to what seems the despair and annihilation of Jerry at the end.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray