Sean Penns directorial films are deeply interior ones. They are about getting inside characters in emotional turmoil Vietnam Vet Viggo Mortensen trying to adjust to ordinary life in The Indian Runner; Jack Nicholson swearing to kill the man who ran down his daughter in The Crossing Guard; and Nicholson again here vowing the titular pledge to capture the murderer. The difference in Sean Penns approach becomes apparent if you imagine The Pledge made as a standard thriller. There the film would have been tightened by more than half-an-hours running time and a good chunk of the middle cut; the love element would have been expanded out; the moral ambiguities that surround Jack Nicholsons relationship with Robin Wright and her daughter would have been painted over with platitudes at the end; and we would have had a big shootout climax. Instead, Penn spends his time meditating on Nicholsons retirement and eventually obsession although this is something that has mixed results.
Certainly, The Pledge starts out well with the expectation that Sean Penn is directing a straight thriller. All the scenes with Jack Nicholson making the promise to the mother, the arrest of the Indian and Nicholsons uncertainty about the case and starting to piece together clues about another suspect are absorbing thriller dramatics. It is just that about a third of the way into the film Penn drops out of thriller mode and the film slows down in a big way. It is probably an ill choice of topic for Penn to have chosen to make a film about a middle-aged cops retirement as for the better part of an hour, with the exception a few fitful jumps back into thriller mode, the audience feels every moment of Nicholsons boredom and solitude. The film is not entirely uninteresting in these moments but watching scenes of Nicholson fishing, learning the rules of his chalet, trying to use a manual credit card reader and so on drag it right out. Although the film was given a multiplex release, the pacing is probably too slow to doom it to much other than an arthouse circuit release.
One aspect of Penns films is that they tend to build to big anti-climaxes. This is not meant as a criticism, merely an observation. In The Crossing Guard Penn built the whole film up to the murder of David Morse by Jack Nicholson but pulled away from it at the last moment. Penn does it not to disappoint audiences but in full knowledge of the fact that he is deliberately playing against Hollywood expectation he has stated that in his films there exists no Hollywood virtue, only a realism where the just are sometimes punished equally along with the bad. The Pledge comes with an interesting such anti-climax. Penn allows us to become so engrossed in Jack Nicholsons sedentary life and outbursts of paranoia that when he slips something in the scene where Nicholson sits back allowing Robin Wright to buy a red dress for her daughter that we suddenly sit bolt upright and go Whoa, what did we just see happening? The film then develops toward what looks like a big thriller climax only to have Penn pull away from it and breathtakingly reveal that Jack Nicholson has been manipulating the situation all along. Here Penn walks away from any type of thriller resolution, leaving us with a haunted sense of a good man having gone over the edge (and taken us with him) into totally morally black areas without noticing. There is a sombre twist ending that many will undoubtedly react negatively to for being such a downer. While The Pledge is not perfect, the subtlety of the journey Sean Penn has taken us on at that point is impressive.
(Nominee for Best Actor (Jack Nicholson) and Best Adapted Screenplay at this sites Best of 2001 Awards).