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Case Number 01243

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The Pledge

Warner Bros. // 2001 // 124 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // July 5th, 2001

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All Rise...

Editor's Note

Our review of The Pledge, published July 11th, 2008, is also available.

The Charge

One ex-cop has a promise to keep.

Opening Statement

Sean Penn's directing career has been as fascinating to watch as his acting career. His first film was an adaptation of the Bruce Springsteen song "Highway Patrolman," titled The Indian Runner. 1995 saw Penn direct Jack Nicholson in the harrowing drama The Crossing Guard. In The Pledge, Penn again teams with Nicholson for a story about the blinding obsession of a promise made. Though not a strong box office hit, The Pledge earned critical praise as an uncommon and unconventional psychological thriller.

Facts of the Case

As the film opens, we face Jerry Black (Nicholson), a cop who is retiring from the force after years of service. His colleagues are throwing a party, and with a retirement gift of a plane ticket to Baja, Jerry plans to spend his days fishing for marlin and relaxing off the coast. As the party proceeds, news surfaces that a dead body has been discovered in a small town nearby. Jerry volunteers to go on the case, desiring to finish his last day on the job.

The scene is terrifying. The girl has been raped and killed, her body thrown limply into the snow. No one has yet informed the girl's parents of her death. Jerry shoulders this responsibility, driving to the local turkey farm where they live and breaks the horrible news to them. While discussing details in the parents' kitchen, the mother pleads with Jerry to find the killer. "Do you swear by your soul salvation?" she asks while holding a straw cross her daughter had made. Hesitantly, Jerry accepts.

Soon a suspect, Toby Jay Wadena (Benicio Del Toro), is brought in that matches the description of an Indian man fleeing the scene. Through tricky interrogation by Lt. Krolak (Aaron Eckhart), Wadena jaggedly admits to killing the girl. Before the case can proceed any further, Wadena snags a police officer's gun and shoots himself dead. For all intents and purposes, it's now an open and shut case.

Or is it? Years on the force have honed Jerry's detective skills, and his instincts tell him that something about the case doesn't seem right. In fact, due to the way the interrogation was conducted, Jerry's not so sure that Wadena was the killer. From here, Jerry's obsession takes over his instincts. His life is soon bent on finding the truth about the murder, and upholding a promise he made the dead girl's parents. His drive will take him deeper into the case, and his soul, than he ever imagined.

The Evidence

I purposely don't want to go into intimate detail about the plot of The Pledge. It's not because it's as intricately laced as other crime thrillers (though it is well put together). The Pledge will work devastatingly better if little is known about its unfolding.

By the looks of the trailer, The Pledge is like any other crime thriller. For the first third of the movie, this is actually true. However, as the clock ticks away, The Pledge delves deeper into something much more fascinating than just the crime. We're taken for an obsessive ride as Jerry frantically tries to figure out the root of evil that has stolen the life of an innocent child. Penn's directing has always been a stark, bleak look at people and their conceptions of the world around them. The Crossing Guard dealt with revenge. The Pledge also deals with this theme, though in a much more subtle way. Jerry's revenge is not so much personal as it is purposeful. He's made a promise and he intends to keep it. His years on the force have driven him, and even with retirement, he can't give up his passion for solving crimes. What is the nature of obsession? And where does it end? The Pledge may not answer these questions, but it at least has the courage to look them dead on. Jack Nicholson shows great restraint in Jerry Black. Nicholson is known as playing over the top characters, fuming and ranting in films such as The Shining, The Witches Of Eastwick, and Batman. In The Pledge, he shows more than just great restraint—his character acts with stillness and grace, proving that a little can indeed mean more. Black is a man who can't give up his past. There is the feeling that even without this one case Jerry Black couldn't have let his former life go.

Screenwriters Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski adapt Friedrich Durrenmatt's book with great skill. While The Pledge is original and refreshing, it could have easily have teetered into drab territory, mimicking other bleak thrillers Hollywood has churned out over the last few years. The Pledge is really a character study more than a crime thriller; murderers and motives are secondary. As the film unfolded, I wasn't as interested in the "is he or isn't he out there" killer story as I was in the idea of Jerry's motivations. Half way into the film Jerry sparks up a friendship with Lori (Robin Wright Penn), a local waitress at a small town restaurant. Their joint journey of discovery, along with Lori's daughter, is the backbone of the film. In Lori, Jerry finds something that he's never experienced—intimate, domestic happiness. Twice divorced, you can see his trepidation in his initial introduction of Lori. The way this relationship unfolds is as touching as you're apt to find in any movie. Both actors find something different in their characters than I (or most viewers) would have expected. This, in turn, is what makes The Pledge such a special film. Other actors, such as Harry Dean Stanton, Benicio Del Toro, Mickey Rourke (yes, THAT Mickey Rourke) and Helen Mirren all give sharp, defined performances, supporting a mature cast and a well told story.

The Pledge is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Warner has done well with this transfer, showing nearly no blemishes or imperfections. Colors and flesh tones were all natural and bright with blacks being thickly solid. The atmosphere is somber, and Chris Menges's excellent cinematography thrusts the viewer into a feeling of dread and tension (especially during the winter scenes). Edge enhancement was not spotted, and digital artifacting was absent as well.

Audio features a Dolby Digital 5.1 track in both English and French. I was surprised by the amount of usage the rear speakers had during The Pledge. Though this is a mostly character driven thriller, such sounds as rain or thunder surround the viewer in all speakers when necessary. Dialogue was clear with Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt's eerie music score mixed in evenly.

Supplements include only an anamorphic theatrical trailer.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

The Pledge will not be to all viewers' tastes. If you're looking for something in the vein of Kiss The Girls or Copycat, you'll be watching the wrong film. Though The Pledge does have elements of these films in it, the story wraps around human emotions more than by-the-book thrills. At a running time of over two hours, The Pledge does tend to slow a bit near the middle to end, but that's hardly a complaint for a film that makes an audience think as much as this one does. Sean Penn is to be congratulated on never taking the easy way out; his characters are filled with personal demons and complexity that are hardly ever present in most of today's star driven vehicles.

A few extra supplements would have been a treat, though The Pledge stands so strongly on its story and characters that the need for insightful material is not so much a hindrance as it is a disappointment.

Closing Statement

The Pledge is a well done thriller/drama. Sean Penn and Jack Nicholson are both given high honors for telling a stoic, new variation on an old story. Warner has done a nice job on the audio and video portions of the disc, though the extra material is kept to the very minimum. For around twenty dollars, this may be a good purchase if you're a Nicholson fan or if you liked the film. Otherwise, I'd suggest The Pledge as a rental—it's well worth your time.

The Verdict

Warner is given a small slap on the wrists for low supplemental material, though set free for the good work on the movie itself. Case dismissed!

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Scales of Justice

Video: 97
Audio: 93
Extras: 15
Acting: 96
Story: 95
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• Theatrical Trailer


• IMDb
• Official Site

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Review content copyright © 2001 Patrick Naugle; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.