The Pledge Sean Penn

The Pledge Sean Penn
How is it that Sean Penn's films as a director all seem to have the ingredients of greatness without actually achieving it? "The Indian Runner" and "The Crossing Guard" were both pretty good films that might have marked Penn as the next Bob Rafelson or Sidney Lumet, but there was something missing. His new film, "The Pledge," is an anti-thriller about one man's desperate manhunt for a child murderer, and it similarly deals with obsession and conflicted morals. But despite flashes of method acting brilliance and a rich, fully fleshed atmosphere, it only confirms what I've felt about Penn's strengths and weaknesses: he's a technically gifted director who hasn't fully mastered the tricky business of connecting with his audience.

"The Pledge" is based on a novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and it's been filmed before, as an odd European co-production called "The Cold Light of Day," starring Richard E. Grant. Neither film is entirely successful, but I can see why screenwriters and directors have been drawn to the story. Jack Nicholson plays Jerry Black, a cop on the crest of retirement who makes a promise to the parents of a slain little girl — he swears to them, on his soul's salvation, that he will find the killer. He's so intent, in fact, on extracting justice from this situation, that he surreptitiously sets a trap for this child-murderer using "live bait." His amoral solution will, he believes, somehow restore order to his world.

All of this can be understood intellectually from the film, but you don't really feel it in your bones. Nicholson's character is incomplete and maddeningly opaque. We can sit back and watch his circus of intense facial expressions and his obsessiveness as it waxes toward madness, but Penn and his screenwriters, Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski, don't provide any insight as to why this particular case might spark that obsessiveness in Jerry Black's character. We don't get any sense that he really cares, more than anyone else, for the safety of children, or that the "pledge" he made to the victim's family is still hanging over his head (Black's commitment to them seems to be forgotten by the second act). Penn and Nicholson clearly want our experience of this character to be rooted in the moment, but the soul-searching motivation never quite rises to the surface.

Overall, "The Pledge" is admirable in intent and execution, but unedifying as an experience. The real nuggets of gold in this film are all on the fringes. Penn is, of course, an actor's director and there's a jaw-dropping moment from Mickey Rourke as a victim's father, wasting away in a deluded haze, as well as an interrogation scene in which Aaron Eckhart, as a Machiavellian police detective, creepily reprograms the thought patterns of a mentally retarded native man, played by Benicio del Toro, in order to extract a phony confession. The cast also includes Penn's wife, Robin Wright Penn, in a key role as a barmaid who's also a struggling single mother. Whenever she smiles you can see that she's sporting a mean old front tooth that's been chipped nearly in half. As I was watching her performance, I thought she was just a little too aware and proud of the fact that she was an otherwise beautiful actress bravely showing off this bit of anti-Hollywood "realism." It seemed too deliberate and overworked, just like the rest of the movie.