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The Pledge (2001)

In “The Pledge,” Jack Nicholson turns in a quietly powerful performance as a cop who can’t let go.  On the day of his retirement party, he takes one last case, promising the parents to find the killer of their 9 year old daughter.  A killer is caught and he confesses, but Nicholson’s convinced he’s the wrong man.  Furthermore, he’s convinced this murder is connected to two others, making the guy they’re after a serial killer who preys on blonde 9 year old girls in red dresses.  It’s hard to imagine a villain more chilling.

Except he may not actually exist.  Now retired, Nicholson triangulates a spot right in the middle of the three killings, and then buys and runs an old gas station right there, keeping an eye out.  He befriends a woman with a blonde daughter about the right age, and they become a makeshift family.  All the while, he’s keeping an eye out for a tall man in a big black station wagon — the clues he believes will lead him to the real killer.

Sean Penn directs “The Pledge,” and he’s pretty careful to keep everything ambiguous. He handles the details masterfully; nothing feels contrived for the sake of the story.  It’s possible that Nicholson is on the track of a real killer, and it’s also possible that he’s slowly losing his mind.    When you watch it, you’ll probably be convinced one way or the other.  I recommend watching it with someone else; they’ll probably think the opposite of what you think.  Then watch it again, and try to find convincing evidence one way or the other.  I don’t think there is any.  That makes it a fascinating movie, and a movie more about obsession and uncertainty than about a cop and a serial killer.  I love movies that do that — make you think it’s about one, fairly conventional, thing, and then turn out to be about something much bigger, more abstract and ultimately more interesting.

Verdict:  Recommended, definitely.  This is great cinema, on a small scale.

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