After The Indian Runner (1991), The Crossing Guard (1995) and The Pledge, a film directed by Sean Penn is instantly recognisable.
All his characters issue from the ranks of the walking wounded: the men are tormented, and the women are usually the hapless victims of that torment.
Narrative drive is deliberately hollowed out and replaced by a floating sense of psychological and emotional mystery: his anti-heroes are men of few words, compelled by inner drives that they scarcely understand and rarely attempt to articulate.
Over his second and third films, Penn has formed a special working relationship with Jack Nicholson. The actor emerges as we have never quite seen him: restrained, internal, willing to take all kinds of risks in contradiction of his once-glamorous star image. And this new-look Nicholson blends in perfectly with all the wrinkled, scarred, solemn, tearful character actors that Penn loves to showcase, from Harry Dean Stanton and Mickey Rourke to Robin Wright Penn and Vanessa Redgrave.
Adapted quite faithfully from a novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Pledge is in many respects the most coherent and best constructed of Penn's films to date. Nicholson plays Jerry, a cop who, on the verge of retirement, becomes involved in investigating the gruesome rape and murder of a young girl. Unhappy with the conclusion that his colleagues reach, he silently sticks to the promise made to the victim's mother – to find the real killer and bring him to justice.
From that moment on, Jerry's solitary life is totally geared around this idée fixe. He buys and runs a garage, befriends a single mother (Wright Penn), and places her little daughter in situations designed to lure the killer back to his evil ways.
Like many an obsessed man of modern cinema, Jerry's paradoxical problem becomes acutely clear: his righteous quest – which Penn bolsters with Christian symbolism – is starting to turn him into something inhuman. The film (carefully scripted by Jerzy and Mary Olson-Kromowolski) balances its abstract, ethical contemplation against a well-sustained and mostly involving murder-mystery element.
Penn is an intriguing figure among the ranks of actors-turned-directors. He clearly aims to emulate John Cassavetes (with whom he briefly worked), but ends up closer to the level of Tim Robbins. Certainly, no one can doubt for a second Penn's skill in guiding actors or his fine feeling for morally ambiguous drama.
Penn has yet to find, however, a solid or satisfying style. Like many of his contemporaries (including Paul Schrader [Affliction, 1998] and James Gray [Little Odessa, 1994]), he is overly obsessed with establishing the mood and atmosphere of a location. Grinding repetition then sets in: almost half of The Pledge seems devoted to snowy landscape shots, slow motion moments, fishing idylls, blurry vistas and melancholic songs wedged between every moment of action or intrigue.
Penn is, by all accounts, an uncompromising and independent artist. But he is caught in a groove entirely of his own making: his humourless tales of masculine remorse are already starting to give off a whiff of staleness.
There are many impressive elements in The Pledge, but Penn needs to strike in new directions to fulfil the promise his work so abundantly displays.
MORE Penn: She's So Lovely
MORE Dürrenmatt: That Day
© Adrian Martin August 2001