The Pledge

The Pledge (2001)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, Harry Dean Stenton
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

After directing only three films, I don’t know if Sean Penn can qualify as an auteur, but his movies certainly have a signature style. Penn tends to make films featuring realistic characters, which have a fatal flaw and find themselves facing insurmountable odds. Stylistically, Penn’s movies are very deliberately paced and he doesn’t go out of his way to make his stars or locations look attractive. Based on some of the comments that Penn has made to the press over the years, one could assume that he is going out of his way to make movies that are anti-Hollywood. Whatever the case, Penn continues this trend with the mystery-drama "The Pledge", which has recently made it’s way to DVD, courtesy of Warner Home Video.

"The Pledge" stars Jack Nicholson as Reno police detective Jerry Black. Jerry is a simple man who likes his job and loves to fish. On the day that Jerry is to retire, a young girl is found murdered and Jerry offers to assist at the crime scene. Finding the local law enforcement very inept, Jerry and colleagues Sam (Aaron Eckhart) and Eric (Sam Shepard) take control of the case. Jerry is given the grim task of informing the girl’s parents, Gary and Margaret Larson (Michael O’Keefe and Patricia Clarkson), that their daughter has been murdered. Mrs. Larson asks Jerry if he can promise her that the killer will be caught. Jerry promises her that he will find the killer.

Thus, we have "The Pledge" of the title. Despite the fact that he’s now officially retired, Jerry continues pursuing the case on his own. Shortly, after the murder, a suspect is caught, but Jerry isn’t convinced that the right man has been charged with the crime. Upon further investigation, Jerry uncovers a pattern of murders, each with the same M.O. After learning this, and realizing that the killer may strike again, Jerry becomes even more dedicated to his cause. He uncovers a pattern in the murders and begins setting up his own one-man sting operation. What Jerry doesn’t realize is that his obsession with catching the murderer may be growing out of control.

Everything mentioned about Penn’s style in the opening paragraph holds true for "The Pledge". The film has a slow, dreamlike style that is divided between long, complicated scenes, and scenes, which last mere seconds. Penn juxtaposes this deliberate pacing by using some creative editing. Oh, there are no Michael Bay jump-cuts here, but the two differing styles forced together helps to put the viewer on edge. Penn is able to use this slow pacing to build up a great deal of tension in the last half of the film. After the first hour, Jerry’s investigation takes a very strange turn, and the audience must play catch-up to figure out what is going on. Also, the leisurely pace and strange plot construction pay off when the film suddenly explodes in Chapter 28. Penn then comes on like a whirlwind and totally catches the viewer off-guard.

Penn’s interesting cinematic style is complemented by the brave group of actors he has assembled. Star Jack Nicholson delivers one of his most controlled and humble performances ever, and to me, as someone who can’t stand the "over the top" Nicholson, one of his best. (He seems to do better when he has a moustache.) Nicholson doesn’t make many speeches in "The Pledge" and must rely on facial mannerisms and bodily gestures to get the point across. Robin Wright Penn also appears in the film, although some may not recognize her. She looks pretty rough, and this aesthetic change seems to fuel her intense performance. Benicio Del Toro gives an incredible strange and brutal performance, and when this turn is compared to his performance in "Traffic", one can’t help but wonder if the Academy simply wanted to recognize his diversity. There are many other familiar faces in the film — Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, Vanessa Redgrave — and they all do a great job.

One word of heed about "The Pledge". The film is a well-constructed drama with a mystery plot going on simultaneously, and it is very well acted. But, the film is very bleak as well. The film, based on a novel Friedrich Dürrenmatt, opens as a typical murder-mystery, but then goes into very new territory, as if it were trying to become a post-modern whodunnit? In addition to Penn’s unfiltered portrayal of human frailty and the non-glamorous look of everyday people, "The Pledge" features a disproportionate number of characters who seem to be mentally handicapped. "The Pledge" is a unique film in that it offers some beautiful cinematography and a very nihilistic view of the world.

The strange dual-nature that exists in the film continues in the attributes of "The Pledge" DVD. The film is presented in a <$PS,widescreen> format, and has been <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1. This digital transfer has been <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TVs. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no defects from the source print and very little grain. As with the story, Penn’s photography is a mixture of light and darkness, both of which look nice in this transfer. From the white snow of the murder scene, to the Larson’s darkened house, to the serene lake where Jerry fishes, the colors are very well-balanced and the fleshtones are very natural. There is no warping of the frame, so it can be assume that the letterboxing is accurate. This transfer borders on being pristine.

The <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 channel> audio mix on "The Pledge" is impressive as well. The unusual score by Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt plays a large role in the film and sounds great in this mix. The dialogue is always clear and never muffled. The surround sound is subtle, but effective, as it is used for musical cues and intense sound effects.

The only extras to be found on this DVD are the theatrical trailer for the film, which is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1 and a biography of Jack Nicholson. Once again, given Penn’s history, I’m not surprised that he didn’t participate, but some production notes that gave a description of the novel and how Penn assembled his cast would’ve been very nice.

"The Pledge" is a dark and mysterious film that certainly showcases director Sean Penn’s talents, as well as his eccentricities. The movie offers some great performances and a gripping story. While the DVD is totally shorn of extras, the transfer is very good and represents the best way to view the film at home. Once again, let me warn you that "The Pledge" is an unnerving film and you can’t walk away from it feeling numb. I promise.