"No good deed shall go unpunished". That was Sean Penn's mission statement while making his best film, The Pledge, and it seemed to keep audiences away in droves. And all those finicky folks out there complaining that Jack Nicholson keeps playing the same character over and over couldn't be bothered to see what I consider the finest performance of his career. In fact the film is littered with great performances from Michael O Keefe, Mickey Rourke, Benicio Del Toro and others. But "Excuuuuse meeee" if the subject of a retired policeman losing his sanity while pursuing a brutal child killer isn't up your alley! Drone.
I was intrigued by the advertisements for The Pledge, which made it look like an old fashioned police story about a cop who won't rest until he puts a child murderer behind bars. And knowing Penn's previous work, The Crossing Guard and The Indian Runner, I was fairly certain there would be some depth to the story as well. Penn wound up giving me much more than I had anticipated. The Pledge is a fascinating character study on a man who is compelled to do the right thing no matter what. He makes bad choices for very good reasons.
Penn makes certain to show the murderer's crimes in full detail (through photographs) so the audience can get behind Nicholson's as he tries to take this monster off the streets. However, at the midway point it seems Nicholson's character actually tries to achieve some peace and happiness by forming a relationship with a single mother and her child. Or is he only with them to use the child for bait? I think the answer is quite surprising and very well handled as the movie reaches it's inevitable conclusion with Nicholson and the child murderer coming head to head. By this time the audience may not be behind Nicholson's character anymore.
Penn has created a thoughtful morality story, where nothing is black and white. I remember talking to a friend who owned a movie poster shop (sadly closed down now) about how Nicholson's character, if looked at in a certain light, is a hero. My friend immediately laughed and said he was going to move The Pledge poster to the James Bond section because he's such a "hero". As I wiped the tears from my eyes I did have to admit that some people may just loathe the Nicholson character by the end, but I felt a great amount of sympathy for a man who the universe seemed to conspire against to prevent him from doing good. There are no easy answers in The Pledge and nor should there be. The film is about real situations involving people with unreal expectations.
And boy oh boy is Nicholson ever fantastic in his role as Jerry Black, a retiring policeman who can not find peace. In every scene he shows Black as a complex character who the audience can never tell exactly what he's thinking. There are moments when his character's real nature seems to come out, but through most of the movie he seems to exist inside his head. An Oscar worthy performance that never even got a nomination. Shame.
Though most folks would find the movie too downbeat and far too depressing I would urge anyone who enjoys a good morality tale to seek his one out. Just remember, no matter what you do, it's probably wrong to someone.