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Review by Gordon Justesen

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Benicio Del Toro, Aaron Eckhart, Tom Noonan, Robin Wright Penn, Sam Shepard
Director: Sean Penn
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Trailer
Length: 124 Minutes
Release Date: June 19, 2001

“I made a promise, Eric. You’re old enough to remember when that actually meant something.”

Film ***1/2

The Pledge is a masterfully crafted, extremely haunting thriller that dares to take a cliché-ridden formula to an entire new level. What starts out as a basic murder mystery soon elevates into an intense character study of how far a determined cop will go to solve a case. The film adds up to simply one of the most stunning psychological thrillers in recent memory, fueled by a dynamite performance from Jack Nicholson, possibly one of his best ever. However, perhaps the true star of the movie is the knockout directing from Sean Penn, who directed Nicholson in 1995’s The Crossing Guard. Penn truly proves himself here as a major movie director who knows how to give his films a sense of place and atmosphere.

Nicholson plays Jerry Black, a Reno detective on the brink of retirement. On his last day, during a surprise party, a homicide is reported, and Jerry volunteers to investigate the scene. It’s a grisly one indeed, with the victim being an eight-year-old girl, who has been sexually assaulted in addition to the killing. After briefing the parents of the terrible news, Jerry promises to both of them that he will pursue and find the killer responsible. A suspect is soon traced and arrested in the form of a retarded Indian, played by Benicio Del Toro, who with nearly ten minutes on screen almost steals the show. Following the appearance of a confession, the suspect quickly shoots himself in front of the cops, bringing this case to a supposed end.

It isn’t over for Jerry, though, as he vows to keep the promise he made. Jerry is asked by his colleagues to quit immediately and pursue his deserved retirement. He then relocates to small nearby Nevada town, where he ends up buying a gas station and spending spare time fishing. Jerry also strongly feels that his prey is still at work and thinks that he will make a strike soon. Soon after relocating, he befriends a local named Lori (Robin Wright Penn), and her young daughter Chrissy (Pauline Roberts). Lori becomes real close to Jerry following a beating taken from her ex-husband. He then welcomes them both to stay with him, and at first it’s an act of decency, but soon Jerry is convinced that Chrissy, being a sort of ringer of the recent murder victim, is the next target.

This all builds to a unique final half to the movie, in which instead of your typical standoff between hero and villain, we instead are to determine the state of Jerry, and if what he believes is real, or is he simply deluded by his own driven obsession with finding the killer and keeping his promise. And are the choices he makes in attempting this are right or very wrong.

The Pledge is not for everyone’s taste, and I’m not just referring to the disturbing parts. It might be hard for some to stomach the details of the young victim’s murder, but this is more of an artful film than a mainstream film. The fact that it was released by a major studio, and that a star-studded cast is included might have viewers thinking otherwise. The ending in particular, will probably have many viewers quibbling, but that’s only because the entire movie is put together in a different and original way. Sean Penn’s directing is simply astounding, and Nicholson’s work here is simply stunning, adding to a long list of wonderful performances. The Pledge is a chilling thriller, and one of the year’s best movies.

Video ****

A stunning transfer to a movie that appreciates its atmospheric look. Warner has given its usual grandness to the transfer for The Pledge, with picture sharpness at a big time high, and color never looking more vibrant. Bright images turn up terrifically, as do darkly lit images. Not a single flaw detected in this presentation. An outstanding job!

Audio ***

The Pledge is a suspense thriller, though it doesn’t rely on many individual suspense sequences. Still, this 5.1 Dolby Digital presentation does serve the movie well, with distinct sounds and background sounds picked up very well, and numerous scenes bursting with a chilling score by Hans Zimmer give the usual DVD impact. All and all, a good enough transfer.

Features *

Just a trailer. I really wish Warner had pushed the commentary opportunity, because I’m very sure Mr. Penn would’ve had a lot to say about making this film.


Mainly ignored in its theatrical run, The Pledge is a dynamic piece that deserves a look at for both Nicholson’s tremendous performance and Sean Penn’s masterful directing.