March 26, 2001 -- "The Pledge" starring Jack Nicholson, looks like a detective story at first blush, but it is really a story about obsession.
Nicholson (who won his latest Oscar for "As Good As It Gets") stars as Detective Jerry Black, who tags along on a murder case investigation during his last hours before he retiring. He makes a promise to the grieving parents of the girl who was raped and murdered that he will find the guilty man.
Within hours a suspect is caught, Toby Jay Wadenah (Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro of "Traffic"). Detective Stan Krolak (played by Aaron Eckhart of "Nurse Betty"), cleverly gets Wadenah to confess to the crime. An eye witness and other evidence links Wadenah to the scene of the crime. Case closed, right? No, the movie is just getting started.
Black doesn't believe Wadenah's confession. He builds evidence which leads him to believe the killing was the work of a serial killer who has yet to be found. He pursues this killer relentlessly. He loses sight of all else. He is obsessed with the case. The film raises a number of questions, none of which are really answered to my satisfaction. Why was no genetic matching done to see if there was a link between Wadenah's blood and any semen or other DNA evidence at the crime scene? The case against Wadenah seemed pretty good, why would Black waste his life on pursuing a case that was already solved?. Was it just fear of retirement, or something else?
Probably the reason that no DNA testing was done was because this story is based on a book written in 1957 (published in 1958) by Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Such testing had not been developed yet. This film, however, was set in modern times, when there is such testing. It needed to have been addressed in the story. The circumstances of Wadenah's confession and the police quickly assuming they had caught the right man are familiar with anyone who follows the criminal justice system. Police and prosecutors can and do convice themselves they have the right man, even when they are wrong. They seem to have a knack for suspending their doubts. It doesn't really make sense that Black would all of a sudden go against that habit, defy all of his friends and colleagues and suddenly develop a conscience. We're supposed to believe he does this just because he is having second thoughts about retirement, and that he needs this case to lend meaning to his life.
All of this goes toward Black's motivation for what follows in the movie, which is his obsession with the murder case. To me the existentialist premise of the film fails. Looking beyond that, the pacing of the film is slow and deliberate (much like the book). A fisherman, Black has set the bait and he's patiently waiting for a bite. It turns out that he is caught on his own hook. It is more exciting that watching paint dry, however, because of great work by some very talented actors. In addition to those already mentioned, Robin Wright Penn of "Unbreakable" (wife of director Sean Penn), Vanessa Redgrave of "Girl, Interrupted," Mickey Rourke of "The Rainmaker," Sam Shepard of "All the Pretty Horses" and Harry Dean Stanton of "The Green Mile" all turn in fine performances. Sean Penn calls, and the great character actors come running. That's why they call him an actor's actor. At the center of it all is Nicholson. Jack is just terrific playing a man who is coming apart at the seams, beaten by fate and his own inner demons.
The cinematography in the film, by Chris Menges of "The Boxer" is also very nice, with good use of location shots (the story is set in rural Nevada). There are lazy afternoons of fishing, interrupted by terrifying nightmares. The editing by Jay Cassidy is also good as we see some jump cuts to startling images which give us an idea what the main character is thinking. This film rates a C.
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