Murder Most Fuel

Sean Penn does not appear in The Pledge, but as its director, he brings to it some of the rapt, aggrieved moodiness of his best film performances. This is his third film as a director, and he moves a bit further along each time; his first two, The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard, were almost voluptuously sodden, but especially in the latter, he showed a gift for bringing out a bare yearning in his performers. (I can still summon up from that film Anjelica Huston’s look of ravaged dismay.) I’m conflicted about praising any movie Penn has directed, because he’s suggested in interviews that he’d rather be making movies than appearing in them, and we need more Penn performances, not fewer. It’s entirely possible that the most mesmerizing actor of his generation has less regard for his gifts than we do. And yet whatever one thinks of the films Penn has chosen for himself as an actor, none of them are commercial hack jobs. Penn’s orneriness as a film personality is an extension of his artist’s pride; that’s why he can downplay his acting in favor of being an auteur and still come through with performances that take your breath away.

In The Pledge, Jack Nicholson plays a Nevada homicide detective, Jerry Black, who can’t allow himself to stand back from the case of a murdered 8-year-old girl even though the murder is discovered on the day of his retirement. Nicholson isn’t his usual strutting satyr here; his eyebrows don’t go in for any heavy calisthenics. Like Penn, he has his ornery artist’s pride, and seeing him in a film like The Pledge is a reminder, in the same way that Tony Richardson’s The Border once was, that Nicholson can be as effective imploding as exploding. He does some of his most generous and unaffected acting in this film, and while underplaying is not his most crowd-pleasing mode, it’s probably his most honest. He seems relieved to be in this movie: no more Smilin’ Jack.

At its most basic level, The Pledge, loosely adapted from a Friedrich Düerrenmatt novel, has the contours of a standard cop-with-a-hunch-that-won’t-go-away movie. Jerry doesn’t believe the confession that is extracted from the leading murder suspect – a mentally handicapped Indian, played scarily by a long-tressed, heavy-lidded Benicio Del Toro – and ends up, on his own, attempting to ensnare the real killer. The dead girl’s parents (played with agonizing accuracy by Michael O’Keefe and Patricia Clarkson) have made Jerry pledge on his soul that he will find the murderer, and his acquiescence in this pact is dead serious. It’s also a way to create for himself a new mission in life, and it is at this point that the film really begins to lift out of pulpiness and into something more textured and unsettling. (Chris Menges’s extraordinary cinematography, which gives this world a crepuscular shimmer, helps.) Jerry acts as the family’s savior not only because he has been compromised into that position but also because he needs desperately to feel necessary. The ease of a retiree’s life fishing for marlin turns out to be a kind of death for him, and although his fishing expedition for the killer unhinges him, it also gives him a reason for being. He’s saving himself and demolishing himself at the same time.

To Penn’s credit, and his screenwriters Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski’s, Jerry’s predicament is never simplified for us. Believing the child-killer is still operating in the Sierra Nevadas, ready to strike again, Jerry buys a ramshackle gas station in the area hoping to get the drop on him; he shelters Lori (Robin Wright Penn), a local, battered waitress, along with her young daughter, Chrissy (Pauline Roberts). Chrissy resembles other little girls who have been mysteriously murdered in the area, and Jerry finds himself drawn to the child. But he also uses her as bait to lure the killer. His ploy is both valiant and monstrous, and what’s horrifying is how Jerry can no longer differentiate between them. He reads fairy tales to Chrissy at night, and we are encouraged to see his own story the way he himself sees it – as a fable about angels and demons and saviors.

The film errs, though, in turning Jerry into a head case; a scene where he meets with a psychologist (Helen Mirren) to discuss his homicide theories and begins to flip out is unnecessary. It’s enough that Jerry is blinded – annihilated – by his obsession. We don’t need to see him reduced to bugged-out gibberiness. We also don’t need such a heavy overhang of existential dread. (In this, the film resembles Paul Schrader’s Affliction, similarly snowed-in by dolorousness.) Penn could stand to be less fancy as a director; his eye is marvelous, but his gaze is often woozy. He fluffs up the film’s emotional through-line with time cuts and hallucinatory jags and outré perspectives, and all that artiness just gets in the way. He needs to trust the story – trust us – more.

But Penn can’t be faulted for his work with the actors. Most of the featured players have only a scene or two, but they’re indelible. The lineup is rich: Besides the actors already mentioned, we are treated to extended solos by Harry Dean Stanton, Sam Shepard, Lois Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, and, as a mortally grieving father, Mickey Rourke, in the most powerful piece of acting he’s ever done. If Penn really lets these actors sing, his watchful camera also knows how to respect their silences. There’s a moment when Lori overhears Jerry reading to her daughter and quietly begins to sob that is almost unreasonably moving. She’s crying because she can’t contain, or even comprehend, her blessing, yet the ruin and regret of what came before in her life is also in those tears. The tragedy of real people is in Penn’s grown-up fairy tale, and it overwhelms.

Composed partially of French communist Party members, the French Resistance also recruited illegal immigrants, many of them Jews from Eastern Europe who fled the Nazis in the early forties. The documentary Terrorists in Retirement (Film Forum), directed by Mosco Boucault and initially banned from French TV, makes a convincing case that these immigrant fighters were betrayed by the Communists for being insufficiently French. Many were turned over to the French police and then to the Nazis late in 1943; a few of the survivors, who now live in Paris and work as tailors, describe what it was like to assassinate German soldiers in the street or toss homemade bombs their way. In one of the more questionable examples of documentary reenactment, Boucault also has these old men replay their executions, with actors in uniform standing in for the Germans. It’s a very bad idea in a very good movie.

The Pledge
Directed by Sean Penn; screenplay by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski; starring Jack Nicholson and Robin Wright Penn.
Terrorists in Retirement
Documentary directed by Mosco Boucault.

Murder Most Fuel