[Screen It]

(2001) (Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn) (R)

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Drama: Honoring his promise to a mother, a retired Nevada detective becomes obsessed with finding the killer of her young daughter before he strikes again.
Jerry Black (JACK NICHOLSON) is a Reno homicide detective who's only a few hours away from retiring when he and his partner, Stan Krolak (AARON ECKHART), arrive at the snowy murder scene of Jenny Larsen, a blond eight-year-old who was sexually assaulted before being killed. Jerry then meets with the victim's parents and promises the girl's mother (PARTRICIA CLARKSON) that he'll find the killer.

It doesn't take long for the police to arrest Toby Jay Wadenah (BENICIO DEL TORO), an American Indian who was spotted at the scene and previously served time for rape and other crimes. Stan manages to get a confession out of the suspect, but Jerry's concerned that the mentally handicapped man might not exactly know what he's confessing to. Nevertheless, all of the evidence points to him, and after he takes his own life, Stan and their boss, Eric Pollack (SAM SHEPARD), believe the case to be solved and closed.

Yet, something doesn't sit right with Jerry, and instead of heading off on a post-retirement fishing vacation in Mexico, the former detective starts snooping around. After talking to the girl's grandmother, Annalise Hansen (VANESSA REDGRAVE), her best friend at school, and even the father of another victim (MICKEY ROURKE), Jerry begins to see connections with other similar and still unsolved murder cases.

When neither Stan nor Eric will reopen the case, Jerry sets off on his own, buying a gas station strategically located near the middle of where the various murders have taken place. He eventually meets and befriends a local waitress, Lori (ROBIN WRIGHT PENN), whose young daughter, Chrissy (PAULINE ROBERTS), fits the profile of the past victims.

As time passes and Jerry becomes closer to Lori and Chrissy and grows increasingly suspicious of a single, local man, Gary Jackson (TOM NOONAN), he does what he can to keep his former promise of catching the killer, a pledge that ultimately causes him to make some questionable judgment calls while doing so.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Among the various reasons people enjoy going to the movies is to see proactive, "can do" characters that are passionate and pursue the villain, their dream, and/or goal with lots of gusto and resourcefulness. Of course, not all movie characters are created equal in such regards, and some do encounter various internal and external conflicts that make them question themselves and what they're after.

Nevertheless, most of them are still far more proactive than everyday folk and for that we're grateful. After all, we don't go to see Indiana Jones sit around and procrastinate or discussing his options with his friends before following a course of action, now do we?

In actor turned director Sean Penn's third outing behind the camera, "The Pledge," actor Jack Nicholson plays such a character and his passion to find a child killer is what drives this incredibly somber and slow-paced, but well acted and directed film.

Adapted from Friedrich Dürrenmatt's original novel by married screenwriters Jerzy Kromolowski (the Danish film, "The Verdict") and Mary Olson-Kromolowski, the film has touches of Atom Egoyan's picture, "The Sweet Hereafter" in it and is somewhat thematically similar to Penn's second film, "The Crossing Guard" that also starred Nicholson and involved the pursuit of a killer, albeit of a different variety.

This time, though, the story is more interested in how that death involves and affects the protagonist as a detective rather than family man. Nicholson's mostly subdued and understated performance in finding the culprit is what gives the film its depth as well as heart and soul. While many viewers will probably see the titular pledge simply as his character's promise to find the killer, I see his refusal to give in as something deeper.

Jerry Black seems to be one of those men whose identification in life is tied to his job, and he's simply not ready to give that up despite the film starting on his last day before retirement. As such, his promise not to give up is as much to himself as it is to the victim's mother. Although that context within this sort of character obviously isn't particularly novel, the way in which Nicholson ("As Good As It Gets," "Blood and Wine") plays Jerry makes all of the difference in the world.

While it's always fun watching the actor delivering the types of performances and mannerisms for which he's best known and rewarded, it's refreshing to see him jettisoning all of that for a far more realistic type character. Although his and Penn's interpretation of the character's slipping grasp of reality later in the film occasionally feels a bit hazy and unsure, for the most part this may very well be some of Nicholson's best work in years, although the lack of flash and exaggerated behavior or vocal delivery will make it seem like less to many viewers.

Supporting performances are solid if obviously in the shadow of their prominent costar. Robin Wright Penn ("Unbreakable," "Message in a Bottle") gets the most screen time among them and credibly plays an abused, but loving mother, newcomer Pauline Roberts is decent as her young daughter in potential jeopardy and Aaron Eckhart ("Erin Brockovich," "Nurse Betty") is good, if underused, as Jerry's partner.

Other well-known performers, such as Mickey Rourke ("Get Carter," "The Rainmaker"), Vanessa Redgrave ("Cradle Will Rock," "Double Impact") and Benicio Del Toro ("Snatch," "Traffic"), among others, are also good, but really only have bit parts, although their presence does cumulatively add to the proceedings.

If there are faults to be listed with this film - and most of them are personal preferences versus artistic or technical deficiencies - it's that it's too somber and too slow. After the engaging and occasionally heartfelt opening moments, the film hunkers down into a slow moving variation of the standard "detective looking for clues" mode.

While I obviously didn't expect this to become an action packed, edge of your seat thriller - although there are a few such suspenseful moments - things slowed down a bit too much for my tastes. The lack of any form of comic relief doesn't really help matters, nor does the fact that that the detective loses some of his proactive drive later in the film.

When a potential suspect is spotted, I kept waiting for the detective to investigate this man nine ways to Sunday, but that never happens. Of course, Penn keeps it that way to maintain some suspense about the man's intentions by keeping him relatively anonymous, but that course doesn't feel true to the central character or story.

Such problems don't derail the proceedings, but the subject matter as well as the tone and pacing will probably insure a quick box office death for this film that simply doesn't contain the commercial appeal to entice or entertain the average moviegoer. If not for Nicholson's presence and performance, it would probably do even worse than it will, but those looking for the actor's trademark idiosyncrasies and mannerisms are apt to be disappointed by what's offered here. Solid, but far from spectacular and too downbeat for its own good, "The Pledge" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed January 16, 2001 / Posted January 19, 2001

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