According to the film trades, director Sean Penn fought bitterly for months with Warner Brothers about how to release The Pledge.
Penn had warned that this wasn't a mainstream Hollywood movie, aimed at megaplex crowds accustomed to such movie verities as warm characters and happy endings.
Penn wanted the movie released slowly, as an art film, so it would have time to build and find its audience, so people would be prepared for it.
The danger, he cautioned, was that people would flock to The Pledge thinking it a showcase for just another Nicholson tough-guy performance, as in A Few Good Men.
Assuming Penn did argue this way, he was right. But he lost the fight against the dependably venal Hollywood studio execs, who wanted the movie released as widely as possible before people realized how brilliantly unconventional and depressing it is. Trailers for The Pledge were blatantly misleading, suggesting a cop-on-the-trail-of-a-vicious-killer adventure ("I made a promise!") In the two theaters where I saw the movie, people had obviously been fooled, and there were lots of squirming kids.
As a result, unprepared audiences are reportedly struggling with this chilling movie, which is not lighting up at the box office, as Sean foresaw.
The Pledge is an anti-mainstream mainstream movie.
Faithful in spirit to the story written by the broody Swiss novelist Friedrich Durrenmatt, it's told in an almost European style (they can make bleak movies there) free of formulaic marketing notions of how much grimness American ticket-buyers can bear and will pay for. In the U.S., the idea seems to be that movies are an escape from reality, not a portrayal of it.
The Pledge conjures up Atom Egoyan's wonderful but determinedly grim The Sweet Hereafter, released in l997. That movie was marketed just the way Penn wanted The Pledge to be -- in small theaters in selected cities. It exceeded expectations, whereas The Pledge can't possibly succeed as the blockbuster Warner Brothers pretended it would be.
This is a haunting movie about isolation, obsession, aging and madness. Nicholson delivers one of the great performances of his life as retiring Reno police detective Jerry Black, who leaves his own retirement party to investigate the murder-mutilation of a little girl and, in more than one sense, never comes back.
Black becomes obsessed with the idea that a vicious rapist-murderer is stalking young blonde schoolgirls who wear red dresses. His ex-colleagues believe the murders have been solved and that he's going crazy and getting senile.
Black buys an old gas station and bait shop at the epicenter of the area where the victims have vanished or been murdered. Though he poses as a retired cop who is now an angler, it gradually becomes clear to the audience that he's anything but retired, that he is honoring his pledge on his "eternal salvation" to the mother of one of the victims: he will find the killer. A host of top-notch actors drop in briefly and shine while they do: Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Wright Penn, Sam Shepard, Aaron Eckhart, Helen Mirren, Mickey Rourke.
Don't expect a light-hearted moment in this movie -- the colors are muted, the climate harsh and forbidding. The open shot is eerie and depressing and it just gets worse. There is an incredibly powerful cinematic moment on a turkey farm where parents learn their daughter has been slaughtered. Nicholson incorporates loneliness and alienation into his language, facial expressions and body posture. He is wrestling with all sorts of demons, from retirement and aging to the kind of obsession that seems credible for a conscientious detective in these circumstances.
Nicholson's detective visibly begins to wear under the strains of his life. He looks grizzled, chain-smokes, walks stiffly, forgets words and thoughts. Gradually -- in the kind of plot development unimaginable in most mainstream Hollywood films -- we come to realize that he is prepared to make any sacrifice, including any chance at a new life, and the people he most loves, to bring the killer to justice.
The movie has trouble ending, and gets a bit improbable. And even the most discriminating movie-lovers aren't always psychically prepared for a movie as unsparing as this one. You keep expecting the film to lighten up, to give us a ray of hope, for the Nicholson character to get on with his life, to see the light, for justice to prevail. But Penn has gone for unyielding honesty and fidelity to a story.
Like The Sweet Hereafter, -- whose influences seem distinctly present here -- the movie's message is that life is a real horror sometimes and, as one character points out, God can be greedy. There are devils out there, as Detective Black tells the bereaved mother. But if you can handle The Pledge -- the (minimal) gore isn't the problem here, but the truth behind it -- you won't regret it. It's a beautiful, worthwhile and fascinating movie, the kind Hollywood isn't supposed to make anymore.