The Pledge (Sean Penn, 2000)
[originally posted 21Jan2002]
Watching this movie after reading the book upon which it is based has the distinct feeling one gets while watching a brand new Ferrari speeding towards a brick wall at a hundred twenty miles per hour. You know from the moment it comes into your view that something is terribly wrong, and you know what the outcome will be, yet you continue to watch in hopes that the driver will turn the wheel at the last minute and survive the spectacle. Unfortunately, The Pledge is like the Spyder that Elias Koteas used for the James Dean recreation in the film Crash—you know that the guy behind the wheel here not only wanted the crash to occur, but that the crash was ultimately the main reason for the existence of the situation. From there, the best thing you can do is pick it apart and take a twisted fascination in seeing how everything went so horribly wrong.
In this case, you can sum up what went wrong in one easy sentence: the screenwriters who adapted the book had their priorities really, really screwed up. Instead of focusing on the main character’s downfall and making the film into the same brilliant character study the book is, the film focuses on the subplot that is simply the catalyst for the main characters downfall. As a result, many of the scenes in the first half of the book upon which the narrative turns are gutted or altogether excised. The end result is that the main character, Black (Jack Nicholson), ends up looking like a levelheaded cop who’s going about his business investigating a crime, even past his retirement, who eventually suffers a meteoric descent into madness for no discernible reason. (This isn’t a spoiler: the opening scene of the movie is Nicholson standing, staring into the sun, muttering to himself and drinking.) This isn’t Lovecraft; people don’t go mad overnight in Durrenmatt’s work. What makes his novels and plays so downright delicious is the descent itself, watching the main character(s) go mad just because they can’t handle the world the way it is. It’s not the one big event, it’s the multitude of small events. That is absent from the screenplay, and the movie suffers greatly for it.
Looked at as its own piece, the movie becomes a bit more bearable. Black is a cop who catches a child murder case with six hours to go on the last day before he retires. He promises the child’s mother that he will catch the murderer. The next day, the police have a suspect in custody, thanks to a witness who can place him at the scene. Everyone’s convinced the suspect is the murderer except Black, who keeps digging into the case in order to find the real killer. It’s a tried and true mystery formula, and it could have been made to work here. But, to turn my earlier argument on its head, once you get past the point where the scriptwriters gutted Durrenmatt’s novel, they then decided to keep as much of what happens AFTER this as possible (changing enough to make a 1957 novel look contemporary and setting it in America, both of which are cosmetic changes). This is where the movie fully derails, as the lack of setup in the beginning makes everything that happens in the second half of the film look coincidental at best. It just doesn’t work.
I know that watching the movie after reading the book is almost always a bad idea, but this is a particularly painful example. **