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Film Review: "The Pledge"

By MSBob in Culture
Thu Aug 23, 2001 at 10:40:21 AM EST
Tags: Movies (all tags)

There are few films made in Holywood that I consider worth watching. Holywood has always been to me the quintescence of all that is wrong with the American culture. It can be summarised in a single phrase: "All sizzle and no meat". That's what most holywood films are like. However, "The Pledge" is one of very few exceptions to this sad rule.

"The Pledge" is based on a novel of the same title by Friedrich Duerrenmatt. The cast in this picture is outstanding and includes stars like Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Benecio Del Toro, Tom Noonan and more. "The Pledge" is the kind of film where a top notch crew is fully justified as the core theme of the movie isn't trivial to act out. A more on that in a moment.

Essentially the story line is about a detective named Jerry Black who is about to retire when an attrocious murder is comitted and Jerry decides to get involved. After visiting the crime scene Jerry Black goes to see the victim's family to tell them the bad news and gets pressured to make a pledge to the mother of the murdered girl to catch the killer.

Sounds awfully familiar doesn't it? Rest assured as I've just described the most corny bit of the story. From then on the film gets substantially better as it essentially descends into a character study of a man driven by obsession. The whole story is built around Jerry Black and his quest to solve the case. Unfortunately the fate doesn't seem to be quite on his side. Slowly but surely the mental state of Jerry Black recedes into near madness and his involvement in the case gets far beyond being just a professional duty. And if there is a single type of role that Nicholson can play, it has to be the role of a madman. "The pledge" is destined to be one of the most compelling character studies in the history of film making and Jack Nicholson should get all the credit for the amazing job he's done.

There is quite a bit of symbolism and mysticism in this film but it's more subtle than in most Holywood productions. If cinematography is art then "The Pledge" is a worthy exhibit as its beautifully directed with first class shots. Sean Penn who directed the film seems to be a good actor but I think directing is where his real talent lies. The film is visually more than pleasing and despite a rather simple story line first class acting along with such marvellous directing makes the whole experience very 'immersive'. The quality of music in this production is also noticable. It's subtle most of the time but gets quite eerie when required thus being an excellent suspense builder.

So in all we have a great film which is deep and persuasive but a film that's at a risk of being seriously misunderstood. It's at risk because it uses a fairly popular story base almost as an excuse to present its real story. I'm slightly concerned that this great work may get shelved quickly and become forgotten only to be rediscovered twenty years later when the general cinema audience matures enough to grasp the real message of this film. A bit like "Blade Runner" I suppose. I hope it doesn't happen and recommend that you see "The Pledge" if anything just to see that Holywood stars are actually capable of acting and not just playing with fireworks and ketchup.

"The Pledge" is out on video and DVD in North America.


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Film Review: "The Pledge" | 21 comments (15 topical, 6 editorial, 0 hidden)
Nice review (5.00 / 2) (#5)
by sigwinch on Wed Aug 22, 2001 at 11:29:51 PM EST

I liked The Pledge too. It's one of the maddest, darkest, tragic, and most nihilistic movies I have ever seen. The ending is fabulous, in a visiting-the-morgue-after-a-terrorist-bombing sort of way.

And Jack Nicholson is superb. He has a talent for madness, and this movie doesn't waste it with the standard frantic, manic, evil, axe-murderer approach (as in The Shining or The Witches of Eastwick).

(Tangential rant: ...is out on video and DVD... So DVD isn't video? Beta isn't video? VCD isn't video? If you mean VHS, say VHS. If you mean video tape, say video tape. Sorry to rant, but those trailers that say 'Now available in store on video *and* DVD' have been really getting on my nerves lately.)

I don't want the world, I just want your half.

Nice to hear (none / 0) (#6)
by MSBob on Wed Aug 22, 2001 at 11:46:14 PM EST

Nice to hear I'm not the only one on earth who thinks this is a great film. Here's how most American critics see it though. Sad as it is the author of that review just doesn't seem to have much clue about cinema. I bet he thoroughly enjoyed "Hard to kill" etc. I suppose on the internet nobody knows you're a dog...
I don't mind paying taxes, they buy me civilization.

[ Parent ]
by MSBob on Wed Aug 22, 2001 at 11:49:25 PM EST

Shit! I reread that other review and realised it was full of spoilers. Do not read if you intend to watch "The Pledge". It'll take out half of the enjoyment. Just shows that that Kerry Douglas Dye is a lousy reviewer for revealing so much of the story line.
I don't mind paying taxes, they buy me civilization.

[ Parent ]
Didn't really care for it (none / 0) (#10)
by malikcoates on Thu Aug 23, 2001 at 09:27:39 AM EST

The pace of the movie is very slow. The plot twists are nothing that will make you gasp, and I didn't feel empathy with the characters. I found myself wishing it would just end!

It's hard to feel sympathy for Jack Nicholson's character. The descent into madness is preceded by really stupid behavior for most of the movie. That makes it a little tough to feel sorry for him when bad things happen.

Blade Runner on the other hand is one of my favorite movies of all time. I would be a little more careful about comparing the two movies. Do you think The Pledge is on that level of likability? or just that it's going to be a "cult film".

Waste Of Two Hours (none / 0) (#11)
by Shalom on Thu Aug 23, 2001 at 03:30:46 PM EST

I just saw it a week ago. On the plus side, I thought the characters were all very realistically written--there were no supermen and most people were sub-average in some respect (for Hollywood). This aspect of the movie was actually great.

The plot, however, annoyed the hell out of me. I don't mind dark endings, but I do mind dark and senseless endings. When all is said and done, I like these things to have something to do with the characters' actions. Unrealistic? Probably. Makes for good movies? Definitely.

On the other hand, I loved The Ladies Man (against my previous judgment), so I guess that puts me in a different class of viewers :)

Greek tragedy (none / 0) (#12)
by MSBob on Thu Aug 23, 2001 at 05:28:24 PM EST

Are you at all familiar with the concept of the ancient Greek tragedy as a form of art? You know where fate basically guarantees the no win situation for the main character regardless of his/her course of action. This is the theme explored in "The Pledge" and you obviously failed to grasp it. I think I stated quite clearly that this wasn't a movie for lovers of action packed hollywood nonsense but it's a more involved a little artsy cinema. The ending was necessary to be consistent with the purpose of the picture (hint: it wasn't supposed to be a whodunit kind of film).

You found the ending frustrating because you deeply felt for Jerry, didn't you? I think those who say the ending was crap really mean that the ending was sad and disturbing but they fail to introspect their feelings. Also this ending is probably how the majority of real life murder cases end up ie. unsolved or based on purely circumstantial evidence.

I don't mind paying taxes, they buy me civilization.

[ Parent ]
Greek Tragedy (none / 0) (#13)
by malikcoates on Thu Aug 23, 2001 at 06:48:28 PM EST

My understanding is that in Greek Tragedy the outcome is related to the protagonists behavior. Usually the character has exhibits hubris and is punished indirectly for it. Ok maybe hubris is an attitude rather than an action, but showing it in a play requires some kind action.

When I saw the movie I thought that stupidity was behind the main characters acions.... thinking of it as hubris does explain it a little bit better. But I think if that was his attitude it should have been made more clear.

[ Parent ]

Greek Tragedy? (none / 0) (#14)
by Shalom on Thu Aug 23, 2001 at 10:00:10 PM EST

No, I am not at all familiar with the concept of the ancient Greek tragedy as a form of art, but if it was anything like The Pledge, it wouldn't make a good film.

But now that I've read about it, I think I agree with the other poster. The Pledge broke with Greek Tragedy in exactly the aspect I didn't like. From this page:

"As was noted in the discussion of the Iliad, the word "tragedy" refers primarily to tragic drama: a literary composition written to be performed by actors in which a central character called a tragic protagonist or hero suffers some serious misfortune which is not accidental and therefore meaningless, but is significant in that the misfortune is logically connected with the hero's actions."

The Pledge's ending was nothing if not accidental. There are some parts that fit with Greek tragedy--losing the girl, for example, was a result of his actions. I think the ending of the movie would have been OK with me if the principal tragedy had not been a complete accident.

[ Parent ]
ending not accidental at all (5.00 / 1) (#16)
by Y on Fri Aug 24, 2001 at 09:49:26 AM EST

His obsession brought about the ending. He could have stopped at any time in his pursuit of the case: he never sees the mother of the murdered daughter again. However, Jerry Black's character could not allow him to forget the whole thing. Nietzsche said in Thus Spake Zarathustra (translating from memory) "I love him who has only one virtue. One virtue is more virtue than two virtues, because it is a greater knot with which one can hang one's doom." Jerry's virtue is the pursuit of justice. He can't abide without it being served.

In this way, this story most certainly contains the chief aspects of Greek tragedy. Our hero, his hubris inflated by his virtue, finds himself inextricably trapped in his own private doom. Any other ending for the movie would have been ridiculous and blatantly tacked on like a clip-on tie. The full title of the original work by Duerrenmatt is "Das Versprechen: Ein Requiem auf den Kriminalroman" or "The Pledge: A Requiem for the Criminal Novel." I would recommend reading some of Duerrenmatt's other works, and you will see this theme coming through strongly and clearly. Read his plays "The Physicists" and "Visit of the Old Lady" as well as Nietzsche's "Thus Spake Zarathustra" to see what I'm talking about. "The Pledge" has everything to do with the Greek concepts of arete and moira, and the German equivalents Tugend and Verhaengnis and to say otherwise is missing the point.

[ Parent ]
Not Accidental? (SPOILER) (none / 0) (#17)
by Shalom on Fri Aug 24, 2001 at 03:04:34 PM EST


If you actually for some strange reason want to see The Pledge, don't read this.

I am talking about the car wreck. This was an accident, pure and simple. It had nothing to do with the main character's actions and "hubris" except that the character could have chosen not to pursue the case anymore. And if the accident had not happened, then the main character would have probably been vindicated because they could have caught the guy or at least seen him. It is easily arguable that he would not have descended into madness if they had caught the guy, or if the guy had come and got away, because even then he would still have had someone to chase.

Thus, the main cause of the character's downfall was an accident. And in this case, a literal accident.

Here's an alternate Greek Tragic ending that would have had most of the same elements but without the senselessness. Say that, after the bad guy set up the meeting with Jerry's daughter, he saw Jerry watching, and started asking around about him. Jerry's obsession, ex-cop-ness, and questions around town must have gotten around to a few people around town. Then, while you see Jerry acting out the final scene of his play, you see the bad guy driving out of town, to another place. The bad guy never comes, he loses the girl, he descends into madness, the other cops think he's a clown--everything happens the same except this time it's actually as a result of the characters' actions.

[ Parent ]
some other Greek tragedies (5.00 / 1) (#18)
by Y on Fri Aug 24, 2001 at 03:41:52 PM EST

The other thing to note about Duerrenmatt's work is it often carries a concurrent theme of the futility of man's struggle against society and his environment. This is precisely what hubris is, the pride and conviction that we can invariably control our surroundings despite our surroundings.Oedipus could never have become king if he had not been rescued through pure chance, and no one will argue that his story is not an example of Greek tragedy and the concept of fate. There is a certain senselessness to the film's resolution, but that is also part of the point. The message is clear: we can't control the world around us, and the best laid plans of mice and men are laid to waste by nature's caprice. His pride is in thinking otherwise. He doesn't take the little things into account, even the possibility that there is no serial killer (like his buddies on the force think, or want to think). Jerry's monomania ultimately destroys him because he refuses to relinquish it.

[ Parent ]
Sure (none / 0) (#19)
by Shalom on Fri Aug 24, 2001 at 05:24:22 PM EST

Spoilers Again

His pride is in thinking otherwise. He doesn't take the little things into account, even the possibility that there is no serial killer (like his buddies on the force think, or want to think).

For a while I was wondering whether he was right about this. I would have been willing to believe the "foolish pride" or "inventing enemies" theme, and it probably would've made a good movie. I would have liked the ending. But when a guy calling himself "the wizard" offered the girl little porcupines when she was wearing a red dress and said to meet him in a private place and not to tell anyone about it, I decided he was probably right and all that went out the window. At this point he is still a monomaniac, but he is also right, and to an outside observer that is the difference between a hero and a kook.

There is a certain senselessness to the film's resolution, but that is also part of the point. The message is clear: we can't control the world around us, and the best laid plans of mice and men are laid to waste by nature's caprice.

I'll agree with you there; I personally think it makes for a crappy movie, but there we get into personal opinion upon which we will probably never agree :)

[ Parent ]
this non-filmgoer agrees (none / 0) (#15)
by claudine on Fri Aug 24, 2001 at 05:49:29 AM EST

I don't go to the movies very often, and when I do I'm usually disappointed. I did see The Pledge last week and was quite moved by it, for reasons that I haven't fully digested yet. Thanks for drawing attention to it.

But: out on video? Here in Australia it was one of the highlights of last month's Melbourne International Film Festival, and it only went on general theatrical release last week. NOT FAIR!

I don't have a .sig

Thumbs up for me too... (none / 0) (#20)
by anansi on Sat Aug 25, 2001 at 01:58:08 PM EST

We're accustomed to viewing film plots through the character's eyes. When a director changes that rule, the effect can be a really good mind-fuck.

Hitchcock mastered the art of telling the audience about things that the characters themselves didn't know. This one did the same thing: we get closure by seeing the mystery resolved, but the main character remains stuck in the middle of the mystery. That's exactly the sort of thing that makes people crazy, (having been there myself) and that sort of dramatic tension made memento a great ride as well. (even if the plot was simple, the narrative made it fascinating.)

Don't call it Fascism. Use Musollini's term: "Corporatism"

Memento (none / 0) (#21)
by ncmusic on Mon Aug 27, 2001 at 11:21:04 AM EST

God I loved Memento. I can't wait to get the dvd and watch the chapters in chronological order to see if the story still makes sense.

[ Parent ]
Film Review: "The Pledge" | 21 comments (15 topical, 6 editorial, 0 hidden)
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