"There is such a demon." Movie Reviews

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"There is such a demon." Movie Reviews

Sean Penn's "The Pledge" begins when it seems the protagonist's career is over. Jack Nicholson plays Jerry Black, a Nevada police detective whose retirement party is disrupted by news of the brutal murder of a young girl. Across the noisy room he felt a change in tone, and joined the conversation between his leader and the person who was about to take over his job. Then he went to the murder scene, perhaps out of habit or because he had not officially retired. The little girl in the red coat was a sad sight with her blood staining the snow.

Jerry is angry at the poor preservation of the crime scene, and at the police's general reluctance to tell the girl's parents. To hell with that. He will do it himself. We watched him slowly approach them across the floor littered with restless turkey chicks. Penn held his camera in the distance as Jerry broke the news to the parents, whose grief was evident. Then, inside their home, he assures them that the killer will be found. The mother (Patricia Clarkson) holds up the cross made by her daughter, and asks for her solemn promise. He gave it. He would not rest until then.

The scene plays out exactly like that. But then, thinking back on it, maybe we feel a deeper level. Jerry Black is twice divorced, childless, a career cop who now allegedly hopes to spend the rest of his life fishing. But he was interested in the news of the murder, drawn to the crime scene, interested in being the one to tell his parents, and now he vows to solve the crime. What happened to his fishing trip? This was a man who held onto his identity with a desperate grip.

That determination is at the core of "The Pledge," which seems to follow the shape of police procedure and then plunges deeper into the mysteries of innocence, crime, and a man's need to validate himself. At some point we realized that retirement, for Jerry, was a form of defeat and death. When the girl's mother says, "There can't be such a demon out there," look into her eyes as she says, "There is such a demon." He had worked against them all his life, and now he had to find this one to save himself.

He looks through the one-way glass at the interrogation of the main suspect, a retarded American Indian named Toby (thin-haired Benecio Del Toro). Questions come from Krolak (Aaron Eckhart), who will take over Jerry's job. He coaxed and coaxed in Toby's ear, wooing recognition, and when he got it he raised his hands in victory like a football coach. Jerry was shocked: The Indian clearly didn't understand what he was saying. And then, seconds later, Toby killed himself and the case seemed over.

"The Pledge" is probably Nicholson's best performance. There are no familiar signs of his more popular appearance, no playful characterization, no omitted sarcasm. We see a lonely, aging man whose attempts at retirement fail. He stays on the case. After leaving the squad, he uses the map to triangulate three crime scenes where, over the years, young girls, all in red, have been murdered. At a crossroads he found a small country shop and gas station with an apartment upstairs. He steps in and makes his owner (Harry Dean Stanton), an offer too good to turn down.

If all three crimes were committed by the same person, that person must pass through here. From a friend of a slain girl, she obtained a picture of a man she met, a "giant", who gave her a "hedgehog" and drove a big black car. He grew intense every time a black car came in. He and his young daughter could live with him. No ties.

We are afraid to draw clear conclusions. Should one child be at stake in his determination to avenge the other? Sean Penn never underlined this. Granted, the film is so intimately involved with the details of everyday life that there's a good stretch when we don't really focus in those terms. We fell into the rhythm of life in rural Nevada, beyond Reno. We fall into a new household routine that has been formed. Jerry, who never had children, revealed himself to be a good father, reading bedtime stories, watching the girl carefully. He never told Lori about the murder case, but used his background as a policeman to explain his deep concern for the girl's safety.

Sean Penn shows himself in this film as an assertive director with great empathy for the performance. That he and Nicholson were able to pull off names like that for minor roles speaks for itself. But Penn uses them for what he knows about them, not for their face value, and the presence of actors with real weight carries the importance of roles that are "supportive" but not minor. Robin Wright, then Penn's wife, was perfect as a tired working woman seeking safety and affection for herself and her child.

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