The Pledge (2001)
The Pledge was Sean Penn’s third movie since transitioning from acting into directing and perhaps is one of his most accomplished to date. Sean Penn used materialised ideas from his previous film, The Crossing Guard (1995), “the terrifying vulnerability of young children; the grizzled, tragic loneliness of old men”, creating a “compelling drama, part psychological thriller, part parable, part tragedy”. Not only did Penn call on his previous directing experience to help produce his movie, but most importantly, the Pledge was adapted from the novella, “The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel”, which was written by Friedrich Dürrenmatt in 1958. Dürrenmatt apparently wrote his novella to polish the theme he originally envisioned in the screenplay for the 1958 film by Heinz Rühmann, “Es geschah am hellichten Tag”, translating to “It Happened In Broad Daylight”. Thirty-eight years later in 1995, the Dutch filmmaker, Rudolf Van Den Berg, produced a remake of the film and named it “The Cold Light of Day”. Another “obvious influence” on The Pledge, is the film by French director, Bruno Dumont, called “Humanitè”. The central plot idea amongst all four of the above films are almost identical; they focus on a senior police investigator who is dispatched to investigate the rape and murder of a little girl. As the experienced detective hunts for leads in the case, his inquiries bring him to questioning the mother and father of the murdered girl. It is there that the detective is forced to swear a pledge to them, and to their God, to bring the killer to justice. Even after the police detective retires from the police force, he sets about buying a gas station in the exact location of the little girl’s murder, in the hope of finding the criminal. Subsequently, he uses another little girl that he befriends in the neighbourhood as bait to attract the killer. Luckily enough, his reckless behaviour does pay off as his trap is successful in ensnaring the murderer. This is understood as the fundamental blueprint used in creating the narrative for The Pledge which is basically another remake in a long line of adaptations; stemming back to the original screenplay written by Friedrich Durrenmatt in 1958.
The Pledge does consist of standard components relating to the crime thriller narrative it is attempting to portray, for example, the cops, the suspects, it’s victims and the clues. What’s more, the film investigates deeply into the main character, Detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson), as we follow him further and further into his own fragile mind as he enters retirement and old age. Jerry Black “is so alone. We are never given any indication of his family or any information about relatives”. The film begins by presenting Jerry who is on the verge of retiring from being a cop out in Reno, Nevada. The opening scenes at Jerry’s retirement party make it obvious to the audience that he is from a much older generation of cops by the way he is portrayed on the dance floor surrounded by his colleagues. They’re all shown as having fun, laughing and joking around; while the camera pans around an out of focused Jerry, showing him motionless within a scene of great cheer and movement of people. Jerry is out of focus in this scene; demonstrating how he is out of place and lost in world he no longer belongs. This is the first time we see a man who is on the verge of embarking “on a terrifying and lonely quest into the unknown places of his mind”. That night at the party, news spreads that a young girl has been found murdered. Jerry, Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart), the man who is replacing Jerry, and Eric Pollack (Sam Shepard), the Chief superintendent, all leave and respond to the call. There they find the murdered girl and the horrific scene of “the little girl in a red coat is a pitiful sight with her blood staining the snow”. Jerry, who goes from celebrating his retirement, to the murder scene of a young girl, to the amazing setting of him wading through hundreds and hundreds of turkey chicks to break the news to the heart-broken parents, to the hugely impactful scene of him holding a crucifix homemade by the little murdered girl, to swearing to the mother “by his soul’s salvation” that he will find the killer. This is ultimately “The Pledge” that the movie title insinuates and what becomes Jerry’s
complete fixation for the foreseeable future. Shortly after Jerry’s vow is undertaken, the police pick up an Indian man riding a truck that fits the description seen driving away from the scene of the murder. The Indian, Toby (Benicio Del Toro), is obviously mentally disabled and unaware of what is transpiring. Surprisingly, other directors have used this exact technique of wrongly framing a murder on a mentally disabled person, for example, Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisioners” and Nic Pizzolatto’s “True Detective”, so it is not unusual. However, in The Pledge, when forensics find the young girl’s stomach full of chocolate, matching Toby’s truck full of chocolate wrappers, the police link the clues in the truck to the crime. After Detective Krolak combatively forces a guilty confession from the feeble minded Indian (which was basically a mirroring of words between knife-edged Stan Krolak and Toby), Toby gets taken away to be locked up but he manages to somehow get his hands on the police officer’s gun and commits suicide. This closes the case and ends any suspicions of his involvement in the murder and rape of the young little girl as all signs point to Toby acting out the crime. However, Jerry’s intuition after years of being a cop tells him that there’s something fishy going on, something just isn’t right. This is the first occasion that we see the real character of Jerry, not only that he is a cop, “but a retired man, an older man, a man possessed by a fixed idea”. Even though the case is officially closed after the death of Toby Jay Wadenah, the now lone ranger, Jerry, stays on the case.
Since retiring, he has all the time in the world to triangulate where the next attack may happen, if it’s going to happen at all. He works off previous murder cases, all concerning “young girls, all of them wearing red” that have been killed in the area over the past few years. Jerry finds three carbon-copy murders that all take place within a close proximity and at the heart of his discovery sits the famous gas station; which is used as the central hub in all the narrative adaptations over the years. Jerry passes off purchasing the remote gas station as a retirement home, as it’s conveniently situated next to a lake, and he is an avid fisher. Jerry believed, “if the three crimes were committed by the same man, that man must pass here”. Then something unanticipated happens. Jerry meets a single mother, Lori (Robin Wright), who is a barmaid at a nearby tavern. Jerry discovers that she is being physically and emotionally abused by a boyfriend, so invites her and the daughter (a young, blonde girl who wears a red coat) to come and live with him, no strings attached, no questions asked. It is here that Jerry’s genuine sympathy for the woman and her child grows from innocent protection to love. Finally, “after a couple of divorces, Jerry discovers at last what a happy domestic life can be”. Now, for a mentally sound person, Jerry’s golden chance for a peaceful and loving life at his grand age would be the chance of a lifetime. No way would that person present any opportunities to mess the situation up. Or so you’d think.
But no. From that point on, “we immediately realize that the daughter is a potential victim of the killer, if he is indeed still at large” and instead of settling down with his new found love and enjoying retirement, Jerry proceeds to shockingly use Lori’s daughter as bait to catch the killer. Sean Penn intelligently never clearly announces this questionable plot line into the movie, however, it is subtly insinuated that it is Jerry’s intentions to use the girl in this dubious way. Penn hides this well by portraying Jerry, “as a good father, reading bedtime stories, keeping a cautious eye on the girl”. However, Jerry’s disturbing plan comes to obvious fruition when the daughter asks Jerry if she can go and visit Gary Jackson (Tom Noonan), the strange man who has befriended the little girl and has requested to have a picnic with her out in the woods. Jerry agrees to it, suggesting it will be their “secret”. This is where the narrative arrives at it’s ultimate climax, elevating “the movie to another, unanticipated, haunting level”. Jerry uses this sticky situation to inform his former police unit that a plot to murder this little girl is about to be realized. Luckily for Jerry, the little girl does not come into any harm, regardless of the SWAT unit on hand to deal with the situation, because Gary, the murderer at large, is involved in a severe car accident on his way to the meeting and painfully dies in a burning fire ball. Some may call that Karma.
I believe this is the major difference between The Pledge and alternative crime/drama epics. Instead of a chase scene, or some kind of confrontational focal point, the film takes a different turn. The Pledge shows us Jerry’s character and his need to “persevere in the face of failure and even madness to complete a task he has set himself”. Jerry had a choice to take the easy road; a chance to retire in peace, with a wonderful woman who fell in love with him and watch her daughter grow up in the protection and safety of his watch. However, that wasn’t to be. The final scene “leaves us looking down on a small crumbling man left by a wonderful woman and her beautiful daughter”. His obsession in fulfilling the pledge led Jerry to his ultimate downfall. He lost everything. “The film hasn’t been about murder but about need. Everything he has seen and everything he has done has been driven by his need, to prove himself still a good detective”. In the end, Jerry was right about the killer, but it came at the huge price of losing everything that had become dear to him, even his sanity and his one chance of a happy ending.