Jerry Black, a tenacious detective in the Reno, Nev., police department, is set to retire. But when his boss, Eric Pollack, is called away from the retirement party, Jerry knows something is up. He’s right. It turns out that the body of a 7-year-old girl was found sexually assaulted and mutilated in the snow on the outskirts of town.
Jerry cannot resist the lure of solving another crime, particularly one as heinous as this, so retired or not, he pursues the case. In the course of giving the dead girl’s parents the bad news, he pledges not to rest until he finds the killer, hence the title of the film.
Did I mention he’s tenacious? Even after police are sure they have the killer (a mentally retarded Indian named Toby Jay Wadenah), Jack isn’t so sure. After Toby commits suicide in jail, the police wrap up the case, but Jerry won’t let it go. Thus begins a story of obsession, paranoia and not a little madness.
positive elements: Jerry is clearly motivated by a desire to right a terrible wrong. He tells his skeptical boss, “I made a promise; I intend to keep it. You’re old enough to remember when that meant something.” He is a dedicated police officer, unwilling to cut corners. He even rescues an abused woman and her daughter, taking them under his wing to protect them.
spiritual content: References to Christianity are woven throughout the film, but because of Penn’s oblique storytelling, it’s unclear at points how they are intended. The mother of the murdered girl makes Jerry swear “on your soul’s salvation” to find the killer as he holds a reed cross. The grandmother of the girl asks Jerry, “How could God be so greedy?” She then adds, “Whenever a good child dies, an angel of God comes down to carry her to heaven.” Jerry is asked by a psychiatrist if he’s a religious man. He replies, clearly uncomfortable, “I was baptized, but I’m not devout.” One man Jerry suspects of the murder is a country preacher. The Rev. approaches a young girl and asks her, “Has your mommy told you about the Word?” He gives her a glow-in-the-dark crucifix, telling her that way Jesus will always be with her. Jerry storms into the church, sure the preacher has murdered the girl, only to find a children’s Bible study going on. The preacher comes down the aisle and says to Jerry, “Welcome to the house of the Lord.” A little girl sings “Jesus Loves Me” as she plays in a park. And a noncommittal Jerry says, “Some people believe in the Bible. Others think it’s just a fairy tale.”
sexual content: It is strongly implied that a string of murdered girls were all sexually assaulted. That fact alone will drive most families away from The Pledge. Lori, the abused woman Jerry takes in, is so taken by Jerry’s kindness that she coaxes him into sex (the scene is only implied, and there’s initially no hint of sexual interest on Jerry’s part). Several detectives make crude references to deviant sexual acts and genitalia. A cop makes an obscene gesture to a suspect.
violent content: The first murder scene shows fleeting images of a nude, dismembered body. Jerry receives a detective packet and lingers on explicit crime-scene photos of another murdered girl. A grisly scene has a murder suspect stealing a cop’s gun and blowing his own brains out in an elevator. A car accident shows a blackened corpse trapped in the driver’s seat. Some of Jerry’s hallucinations are bloody and violent as well.
crude or profane language: The f-word is used about 10 times; the Lord’s name is abused 15 times. Other crudities and profanities also arise.
drug and alcohol content: Jerry is a chain smoker. He is also shown pouring whiskey into a cup while ice fishing. Police consume beer and other drinks at a retirement party, and Jerry offers whiskey to a distraught woman.
other negative elements: A corpulent woman in a police station is shown with her leg propped on a desk as she paints her toe nails (the camera lingers on the fleshy thigh and crotch beneath her dress).
conclusion: Penn flexes his developing directorial muscles in this beautifully photographed film. The Pledge is not quite what it seems at first. It begins as a standard police procedural, but quickly moves in unexpected directions as Penn chooses instead to explore what drives Jerry Black’s obsession. Early events spring into a new light when the movie takes a sudden twist near the end. Too obvious in many of his roles, Nicholson is stunning here in the way he subtly conveys myriad sides of his character, never overacting. And moviegoers are left with the interesting feeling that they’ve been on the wrong side of the looking glass throughout the story. Intriguing. But graphic violence, flowing alcohol, incessant smoking, mindless vulgarity and harsh subject matter (the exploration of abuse and murder of children is gut-wrenching at best) plunder much of The Pledge’s intricate nuance and experience.