Rated R - Running Time: 2:04 - Released 1/19/01

In a way, Sean Penn's The Pledge is a Crossing Guard reunion. It reunites director Penn with two main actors from his 1995 film (Jack Nicholson and Penn's wife, Robin Wright), and more importantly, it seems to share theme, tone, and even some plot elements with the previous opus, featuring Nicholson as a man whose obsession with bringing justice to a child murderer destroys him and wrecks all his relationships. Unfortunately, it also shares some of the film's flaws, including a tendency toward digression and a lack of focus. Penn is a sensitive filmmaker with an ability to craft attractive images, but sometimes this gets in the way of his storytelling, bogging the story down, if you will, in art.

In a story based on the novel by Swiss playwright/novelist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, adapted for the screen by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski, Nicholson plays Jerry Black, a Nevada detective leaving the force after a long and distinguished career. However, on the eve of his retirement, an 8-year-old girl is raped and murdered. After breaking the news to Ginny's parents, Jerry makes a solemn promise to her grief-stricken mother that he will find the killer. When the prime suspect (a dim-witted Indian played briefly but effectively by Benicio Del Toro) kills himself, Jerry's colleagues think the case is over. But there are some things that don't sit right with him, and in order to keep his pledge, he feels the need to pursue the matter even though he is supposed to be retired. He interviews Ginny's grandmother and her best friend at school, but soon runs out of viable leads.

Jerry moves to a remote fishing village and buys a small gas station/convenience store where he plans to spend the remainder of his life. He meets up with a single mother named Lori (Wright), who runs the small town's only watering hole. After Lori has a violent run-in with her ex-husband, Jerry convinces her to stay with him for a while. He becomes very close to Lori and her young daughter Chrissy (Pauline Roberts), but he still can't get the thought of Ginny's murder and his pledge out of his mind, especially since Chrissy resembles Ginny in many ways. Eventually his obsession with the old case sends him over the edge into dementia and alcoholism, causing his new relationship to crumble.

Although Nicholson, Wright, and Roberts are all quite convincing in their roles (and, in fact, the cast list is peppered with impressive names like Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, and Sam Shepard in supporting roles), Penn's direction sometimes gets too caught up in imagery and atmosphere for its own good. There is an ever-present sense of building tension during most of the movie, but there comes a point when this simply becomes tiring to the viewer, especially since the film, loaded with red herrings, offers little in the way of a real payoff. The ending is empty and anticlimactic, leaving us with a sense of having lost a major investment. Though Penn's artwork is scenic and emotionally resonant, aided greatly by talented cinematographer Chris Menges (The Boxer), the story is in the end disappointing. ***½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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