- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2001

2 and 1/2 out of four stars
TITLE: "The Pledge"
RATING: R (Occasional graphic violence, including the depiction of a murder site involving a child victim and simulation of crime photos with child victims; occasional profanity and sustained ominous atmosphere)
CREDITS: Directed by Sean Penn
RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes

''The Pledge" brings some welcome expressive resources, scenic and human, to a source that remains somewhat impervious to well-meaning elaboration and improvement: a short, spare, perverse 1957 novel by Friedrich Durrenmatt.
Sean Penn's movie version transposes the setting from Switzerland to Nevada, so handsomely doubled by locations in British Columbia that one is reminded anew that the Seattle-Vancouver area might become a plausible new film capital on the West Coast, assuming Hollywood strikes in their next round are adequately prolonged and foolhardy.
Reunited with Jack Nicholson, who played a similarly aggrieved role in "The Crossing Guard," Mr. Penn may have showcased him in ways that enhance twilight years as a character actor.
At any rate, Mr. Nicholson has been persuaded to appear balder and more ordinary than ever before while impersonating an obsessive police detective, Jerry Black, whose essential solitude prompts him to remain on the job even after retirement.
Tagging along to a grim murder site in the snowy Sierras, Jerry discovers the brutalized corpse of a little girl. He volunteers to break the news to her parents. That errand leads him to make the pledge of the title: a sacred promise to the bereaved, pious mother that he will not rest until the killer is apprehended.
The upshot: He goes mad while determined to keep the pledge.
As a matter of fact, we first encounter Mr. Nicholson as a desert rat of some kind, muttering to himself on what appears to be the site of a decaying gas station and residence. This prologue ultimately is amplified as an epilogue.
The intervening episodes account for Jerry's ordeal, which turns him into an object of pity to most onlookers, including former police colleagues played by Aaron Eckhart and Sam Shepard.
The real tragedy is that Jerry persists in honoring his pledge in a way that alienates him from a self-evident source of consolation and renewal: an adopted family of his own, consisting of a waitress, played by Robin Wright Penn, and her little girl, played by Pauline Roberts.
At a certain point, it becomes immaterial whether the protagonist has committed himself to a search for a killer who no longer exists or is likely to remain elusive. The question is whether the detective can save himself.
That dilemma is intensified when we see embodiments of the people whose protection ought to mean more to him than the pursuit of a "closed case": Miss Wright's grateful Lori and Miss Roberts' winsome Chrissy.
It was easier to dismiss the comparable characters in the book as marginal or even hypothetical. The movie gives them an authenticity that the filmmakers can't brush aside, so a huge burden shifts to Mr. Nicholson: He needs to appear crazier than the circumstances appear to warrant.
Jerry has to remain so committed to his pledge that the daily satisfaction associated with Lori as a consort and Chrissy as a trusting child fails to help him snap out of it.
The filmmakers insert some hallucinatory fears that exist only in Jerry's mind, but I'm not certain Mr. Nicholson gets enough help in tilting over the edge. He may provoke more impatience than pity or terror or campy amusement, the ace in the hole when he did a berserk dad for Stanley Kubrick in "The Shining."
More of a blurring in psychological terms, "The Pledge" takes on a hard-to-adapt piece of material and gives it an inventive and sometimes fascinating re-enactment.

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