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January 19, 2001 | 124 minutes
“The Pledge” is based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1958 novella “The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel”. Dürrenmatt wrote The Pledge to refine the theme he originally developed in the screenplay for the 1958 German film “It Happened in Broad Daylight” with Heinz Rühmann. For Sean Penn, it was the third attempt at directing, his most successful so far. Discussing the film, Penn says: “It’s a very different kind of movie than my first two. I think everybody considers it much more accessible. It’s really a retirement-crisis story disguised as a thriller. I didn’t get the retirement-crisis story financed, if you know what I mean. But I got it shot.” By his own admission, Penn’s wife (at that time) was not his first choice for the role of a truck-stop waitress with a young daughter and an abusive ex-husband, casting her just a week before shooting began. “I was talking to a lot of people, and there were people who I was very serious about, but I felt they would need more of me than I could give in these circumstances, so I just decided that I needed somebody that I knew could handle the emotional stuff and go head-to head with Jack Nicholson. So Robin was the one. And I’m glad it happened, because it worked out, and now I can’t imagine it any other way.
“The Pledge” is Nicholson’s film from first to last, but despite this, Penn works in an extraordinary roster of discreetly excellent cameos and subordinate players: Robin Wright Penn, Harry Dean Stanton, Mickey Rourke, Benicio Del Toro, Sam Shepard, Aaron Eckhart, Vanessa Redgrave, and Helen Mirren. The sheer craftsmanship with which Penn absorbs them into his movie’s fabric, eliciting from each a miraculously unobtrusive performance which bolsters Nicholson’s central presence, is pretty remarkable. Penn also sticks closely to Dürrenmatt’s novella. “It Happened in Broad Daylight” stills ranks among the greatest German films of its time, although it was often criticised for changing the ending of the book for a happy ending. Penn doesn’t take this route, which makes “The Pledge” even more chilling.
The film’s January 2001 release was met with positive reviews by the critics. The Guardian wrote: “It is a movie that might disconcert those who are led to expect a straight-up-and-down thriller, and indeed some American consumers seem to have complained that what they read on the label wasn’t what they got in the can. But what they got – and what we’ve got – is a distinctive, demanding, deeply intelligent picture from a first-class director and with a glorious star performance from Nicholson.” Roger Ebert gave the film four stars out of four and later added it to his Great movies list, writing: “The last third of the movie is where most police stories go on autopilot, with obligatory chases, stalkings and confrontations. That’s when The Pledge grows most compelling. Penn and Nicholson take risks with the material and elevate the movie to another, unanticipated, haunting level.” Three months after its US theatrical release, “The Pledge” was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, earning Penn a Palm D’Or nomination.
I have always been a fan of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s books, “The Visit” and “The Execution of Justice” being among my most reccomended reads. “The Pledge”, or “It Happened in Broad Daylight” remains Dürrenmatt’s best known story. At first it seemed strange to have a story, which seems to be so grounded in its 1950s story telling in Switzerland, being transported to modern day USA. But with Penn, the story is in good hands. The result is a thoroughly chilling and bleak thriller with a host of great performances and story twists, free of all known candy coded Hollywood storytelling. This might be the reason why “The Pledge” wasn’t successful at the box office, but it certainly speaks for the film. With a running time of 2 hours, it doesn’t feel lenghty, mainly because Nicholson is on an episode-like oddyssey, featuring great cameos by Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke and Helen Mirren. “The Pledge” is a wonderful exception from all the mainstream cop thrillers. It’s Sean Penn’s best film and features Jack Nicholson’s best performance in his later career. Very recommended.