The Pledge: To A Murdered Girl’s Mother? Or To A Little Girl?

John Fraim reflects on Jack Nicholson's career and the lessons of Sean Penn's film The Pledge. The Pledge: To A Murdered Girl’s Mother? Or To A Little Girl?

A Book Written By Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1959)
A Film Starring Jack Nicholson (2001)
A Film Directed by Sean Penn (2001)

by John Fraim

"I don’t want people to know what I’m actually like. For an actor, once they know who you are, you’re dead … I don’t want to sound to humble, but I don’t try to think of myself as an (icon) - that word. You don’t want to start thinking of yourself that way. It makes you self-conscious."Jack Nicholson
January 2001
There are Hollywood stars. And there are Hollywood icons. Stars come and go with the shifty fashions of popular culture. But icons linger over the cultural landscape like old granite buildings defining the archetypal architecture of their generation and offering up a symbolic hero or heroine for quarter-century chunks of time.

Jack Nicholson is one of the central Hollywood icons for the last third of the 20th century. Born in 1937 in Neptune, New Jersey, the icon entered Hollywood in a pretty inauspicious way in 1954 when he worked as an errand boy for MGM. In 1957, he got his first audition for a film role. Nicholson reflects on this in an interview in January 2001 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles. "I remember my first audition," he recalls. "This casting director looked at me for a long time and finally said, ‘Well, Jack, you’re such an unusual person. I don’t know exactly how we would use you, but when we need you, we’ll need you very badly.’ "

The next twelve years were filled with bad roles bad movies. Many for B-movie king Roger Corman. In the late 60s, his friend Dennis Hopper called and asked him to step in for ailing actor Rip Torn on a low-budget motorcycle movie called "Easy Rider" (1969). A year later he made screen history in an off-beat diner scene in the film "Five Easy Pieces" scene (1970). In the mid-70s, he scored his first Oscar in "One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest" (1975).

The next twenty years were filled with a number of legendary roles remembered by almost all members of his generation. Films like "Carnal Knowledge", "The Last Detail", "Chinatown", "Prizzi’s Honor", "Reds" and "Ironweed." A Best Supporting Actor Oscar was added to his mantle with "Terms of Endearment" (1983), Witches of Eastwick, The Shining, and A Few Good Men.

Through the 70s and 80s his personal life was the subject of numerous tabloid stories. There was a seventeen year marriage to Anjelica Huston and a four-year marriage to actress Sandra Knight which produced a daughter, Jennifer. There was also a shorter relationship to Rebecca Brussard, his daughter Jennifer’s best friend. When Brussard became pregnant in 1990, Anjelica Huston filed for divource. The relationship with Brussard produced 10-year old Lorraine and 8-year old Raymond.

In the 90s, the wild Hollywood icon began to slow down and even embrace late fatherhood with his children.

The year 2001 and "The Pledge" sees Nicholson in his first film following a three year hiatus after his Best Actor Oscar award for "As Good As It Gets" (1997).

It has been a time of contemplation and quietness rather than wild partying for Nicholson. Time spent with his children. Time spent reading.

On January 19, 2001, he meets journalist Cindy Pearlman at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles. He says, "Pretty much the minute I stoppedworking, the biggest percent of my time was spent reading. It’s like a drug of some kind for me. I just read and read. I didn’t read even one script. I didn’t talk about movies. That’s the way I refill the old tub."

The changing world of Hollywood is a concern of Nicholson. As he tells Pearlman, "I hate all this political correctness. I shudder to even use that word. It’s just that we are very conservative now ? we’re ruled by conglomeration and fears. It’s really sad."

Gone are the "Witches of Eastwick" type of antics of yesterday’s Hollywood for Nicholson. "I don’t go out much anymore…I sneak in when I want to go to a party." The daily structure of his life is not a lot more than golf, Lakers basketball and quiet evenings at home.

Not long ago the tabloids ran a picture of him with another legendary hell-raiser, Warren Beatty, at a Lakers Game, escorting their young children.

"Hey, we were baby-sitting for the night. At one point, Warren and I did look at each other and say, ‘Man, times have changed.’ "

Times had indeed changed for Nicholson. Even for a good friend and respected fellow actor like Sean Penn who had bought the rights to make the 1959 story called "The Pledge" by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt. The two Hollywood icons have a lot in common. In many ways, both represent the icon of the finest actor of their generation. Nicholson for his generation. Penn for his Generation X. They both worked together before on the "The Crossing Guard" (1995) directed by Penn.

But even for a friend like Penn it was taking a greater and greater force to pull him away from kids, golf, reading and Laker basketball games. He was very skeptical when Penn first told him about the story. As he says in the Pearlman interview, "I had to be honest and say, ‘Sean, you’re nuts. I don’t see a movie.’ "

Penn persisted, though. He went ahead and hired the brilliant screenwriting team of Jerzy and Mary Olson-Kromolowski to adapt Durrenmatt’s obscure little European story for the Hollywood screen. When Nicholson saw the screenplay he changed his attitude. "I saw there was a very unique movie here."

A dark movie to be sure. Even for the Hollywood king of some pretty darkly comical movies. As Nicholson tells Cindy Pearlman, "This is like no other detective picture ever made. There’s not a darker story ever written. Frankly, I agree with the author of the book, because he was soinfuriated with the standard cop movie where a guy goes off, finds a piece of lint, a confessional letter and then gets a killer. The movie is a rebellion against those other pictures."

* * *

Throughout his public career when he first rode onto the radar screen ofpopular culture with his role in "Easy Rider," Jack Nicholson has been a defining icon for his generation. Nicholson’s generation is that generation just a few steps ahead of that grand Baby Boom generation lumbering down the road on his heels.

Nicholson’s superb gift as an actor has let him breathe life into the filmish bodies of numerous characters who often, without his brilliant life-giving power, would have been dead on arrival at the box office.

Many of the stories certainly have been good ones, directed by Hollywood’s top directors, written by Hollywood’s best screenwriters, inhabited by Hollywood’s leading stars. But few have possessed the synchronicity of matching the icon’s personal life story with the screen story.

When these few projects have appeared to Nicholson, they have been almost like gifts from God. In effect, they have arrived in front of himat times in his life when he needed them more than they needed him. If one understands a little bite about the context of Jack Nicholson’s life, one can say that these screenplays and films are more like slices of autobiography taken from the journal of his personal life at a particular time rather than simply another example of some pretty good Hollywood storytelling.

Such is the story acquired and directed by his good friend Sean Penn. Such is the 1959 story acquired and adapted by Sean Penn. Such is the stage that Nicholson is in with his own fatherly life. Such is the stage America and the generations of these two Hollywood icons are in.

* * *

The story Penn acquired is from the Swiss playwright, novelist, and essayist Friedrich Dürrenmatt whose tragicomic plays were central to the post-World War II revival of German theatre. Born on January 5, 1921, in Konolfingen, Switzerland, Friedrich Dürrenmatt already had writing in his blood. His grandfather - a well-known satirist and political poet - encouraged in the young boy a questioning spirit which would characterize his later works.

In fact, the memory of his grandfather inspired Dürrenmatt throughout his career. He would later write, "My grandfather was once sent to prison for ten days because of a poem he wrote. I haven’t been honored in that way yet. Maybe it’s my fault, or maybe the world has gone so far to the dogs that it doesn't even feel insulted anymore if it's criticized severely."

Educated in Zürich and Bern, Dürrenmatt became a full-time writer in 1947. His technique was clearly influenced by the German expatriate writer Bertolt Brecht, as in the use of parables and of actors who step out of their roles to act as narrators.

Dürrenmatt's vision of the world as essentially absurd gave a comic flavour to his plays. Writing on the theatre in Problems of the Theatre (1955), he described the primary conflict in his tragicomedies as humanity's comic attempts to escape from the tragic fate inherent in the human condition.

* * *

Like all masterpieces, the Dürrenmatt story always moves on a few levels. These levels are always throwing ambiguity into the story. Like an Antonioni film, everything is not always what it appears to be. It is ambiguous. It might be this. It might be that.

Outwardly, it is a police story gone wrong. The result is a type of new mutant genre. Roger Ebert takes a stab at describing this new form on January 19, 2001 when he notes in his review "Sean Penn’s ‘The Pledge’ begins as a police story and spirals down into madness … The story has the elements of a crime thriller … but finally it’s a character study …"

The character Jerry Black has retired from a career. And in a very real sense, Jack Nicholson (in this "inaugration" time of the new millennium) has retired from his wild days in Hollywood to become more of a family man. More of a father.

Cast as a cop on the verge of retirement who, during his last seconds on the job, he finds the body of a dead 8-year-old girl and promises her distraught mother that he’ll find the killer.

* * *

A reviewer like me should be more of a navigator than some obnoxious type of Town Crier. So it doesn’t seem right that we give the plot to everyone out there. Hopefully, most of our readers are those who haven’t seen the film. Anyway, it seems wise to make this assumption when reviewing any form of art these days. Besides, its much more motivating for me to be one of those "thorn in the sides" reviewers who see things in a little different way. It’s a hell of a lot more fun being a "media virus" and spreading your ideas rather than "catching" them from someone else.

Towards the end of The Pledge, one of Jerry Black’s old detective partners in the Reno Police Department laments that Jack has become a "F___ing clown" and a drunk. A psychiatrist he consults on a case he is working on questions his sanity. And there are those flashes he sees and those sounds and voices he hears. His madness is also raised by the last scene in the film. But has Jerry Black (played by Jack Nicholson) really become a clown? Is he really going crazy? His life has changed dramatically since he retired from a successful career as a detective. He has bought a service station near a great fishing area. Fishing is his love in life and there are not too many loves in Jerry Black’s life.

He has rescued a woman named Lisa (played by Robin Wright Penn) from her life as a short order cook in a place in the middle of nowhere. He has become a loving father to her little girl. But has all of this been a sham created by jack Black just to trap what he theorizes is a serial killer of little girls? One could define this film as really one about an obsession which falls into madness told in the mystery/thriller genre. Seeing it this way it is an incredible character study by Jack Nicolson. But in many ways it is also about a man being reborn after his retirement. It is also a movie about how ambiguous life presents itself.

The movie is full of these ambiguities. Who is the real killer? We are given a number of possibilities. It is not that they don’t pan out. It’s that we never really know which possibility is the reality. The killer of the little girl (and Detective Black theorizes others) is a person called The Wizard. But does the Wizard really exist or is the pattern between the murders something that just Black himself sees? And too, there is a powerful existential message in this film. Nicolson is so alone. We are never given any indication of his family or any information about relatives. All we hear is that he has been through twomarriages. Things happen quickly and the film viewer is tempted to say that this is for the sake of telescoping a lot of time into a few minutes of movie time. Nicolson quickly becomes a property owner by buying an old service station/home in the Sierras from an old man. The transaction is completed almost immediately. And Lori and her daughter come to live with Nicolson after she is beaten one night. Rather than be simply elements of telescoping, these events also can serve to show how quickly things in life change. The film is also about nature with some of the most gorgeous shots in recent movie history put on film. It catches the mountains and a new life of Jack Black with an atmospheric feeling for place seldom seen in today’s placeless films. It’s evocation of the mountains and a little town up in them easily matches the evocation of films like Snow Falling on Cedars. The last part of the film sets up a trap to catch the killer. Running below the surface of this trap, though, is really a chance for Black to redeem himself, to prove to his other former police officer partners that he is really not cracking up. His theory is that the killer will try to meet Lori’s daughter in this park nearby his service station. But after a while, no one shows up. However, we are transported to the inside of a car heading down a road in the area with a strange object hanging from the rear view mirror. After a while, the officers leave the set-up but Nicolson stays. They are forced to tell Lori about it and she rushes out to confront Jack Black. How could he have used both of them as bait? He never really cared about her daughter or her. He just cared about getting the killer. As the fellow police officers are driving back to Reno, they see a horrible crash of a black van and a lumber truck. The camera moves inside the burning van and we see the object we have seen previously in the car going down the road. And then we see a man’s head burning. Burning in hell for his crimes? But it is too late for Jerry Black.

* * *

The last scene finds Jerry Black by himself at his service station talking to himself and drinking. Slowly, the camera pans back and up over the entire scene as only the Hollywood camera (and Generation X’s Internet) can. It leaves us looking down on a small crumbling man left by a wonderful woman and her beautiful daughter. He might have really achieved that "golden pond" period in his life when all the world is colored with the lights of Christmas.

We see a touch of the image of this new period his life may become in the Christmas scenes of the movie. Jerry touchingly reads children’s stories to the girl in bed. It is a retired detective in the film but it is really the wild Hollywood icon at his most fatherly and touching. In a real "bricks and mortar" world his world is becoming as it spirals downward at the same time. It is where Nicholson is at in his own life with his children. It is where the character Jerry Black would like to be. The little girl is really his little 10-year old daughter (by Rebecca Brussard) Lorraine. Few times in recent memory has Hollywood revealed so strongly the image of a father. Yes, a very come-lately father but perhaps these types are important to his generation. To show other members of his generation that, yes, they can still be fathers. After all the wild years of Hollywood parties. After Jemi Hendrix and Woodstock. And extended, extended families branching this way and that with the complexity of the Mississipi River or at least the plot structure of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s brilliant bitter 1957 story "The Pledge."

At the end, we hover above the scene looking down at Jerry Black caught in two different currents. This is part of the magnificent beauty of this film. Usually, even those Hollywood icons get a story that pretty much goes one way. The hero either gets better or worse. Here, outwardly, the hero has been descending into obsession. But, at the same time, he has also been ascending in the love for a little girl. This is the grand symbol that "The Pledge" presents all of us and even the grand central icon of an entire generation. It would be a great film if it was just a film about a downward plunge. Nicholson shows one sinking to, as his old detective partner said of him, a "clown." Yes, he is a "clown" in many ways. And perhaps he is going mad. Visions swirl about his everyday life at the little filling station in the high Sierras.

But unseen to most of the film critics is that he is also in love. Perhaps for the first time in his life. One can speculate if there are two loves going on in the film. Does he really love Lori? It is a question that lingers somewhat hazy over the story. There is no speculation, though, that he loves Lori’s daughter, loves her with the power of a man late in his life discovering fatherhood for the first time. Much like Jack Nicholson, the Hollywood icon discovered fatherhood late in his wild life.

So a man’s love for a little girl is the real hero antagonist up against the inside devil protagonist of obsession. The two battle it out for control of his soul in the last third of the film.

So when the camera pans upward in the last shot, we look down on our Hollywood icon. But it is hard to simply keep that all-knowing perspective up in the balcony looking down on your hero in the fading stage-light of his new masterpiece. No, in some many ways you seem to want to rise up from your movie seat and walk down the aisle and somehow jump into the screen and get down there with your hero of all these years.

He may still be a decent detective, though. In spite of the fits of madness. Perhaps he will investigate the black station wagon. Surely then he’ll then realize that the person who burned in the car was "The Wizard." But will he? Will he ever be redeemed?

Our icon has left his generation hanging on this one.

Love battles obsession. But might they be the same thing?

* * *

Indulge us for a few minutes. This is going to sound a little weird. But how can any of us (even Hollywood) create anything weirder than current reality?

So many synchroncities seem to be working overtime on this film. There is that retirement Bill Clinton from the presidency, the "big dog" icon of the whole nation. A retirement of an archetype? Even greater than Nicholson’s "retirement" from his "past life" in Hollywood?

And there at the same time of the national collective change, there is the retirement of detective Jerry Black from the Reno, Nevada Police Department.

It could have been a story of Jerry Black’s obsession. But it is instead the story of Jerry Black’s obsession and redemption. Such a more subtle yet dramatic premise.

They both appear secret little doors back into life for a man who needs something much more than idling away his golden years fishing alone for Marlin in Baja California or on quite little lonely lakes in the high Sierras.

Like the doors being guarded by those to little old women in black in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Somewhat like a postmodern Alice in Wonderland, Jerry pursues dual white rabbits through dual doors. Everything is so relative, after all. Obsession fights redemption. They both seek ways back into the world for Jerry Black. Both ways back to love and feeling for him.

The obsession of a man finds him mad and drunk and shouting to the sky at the end of "The Pledge." But has this obsession killed the love he had for that little girl he held on snowy Christmas season nights? And has it killed perhaps the renewed relationship with Lori, the little girl’s mother? Yes, Jerry Black might still be a great detective. He still might make that connection that gives some type of credence to his obsession. Maybe its not all him. But the way back into the world will not be through more detective work but through the possible future love of a little girl. He has become a "clown" by his peer’s standards yes. But he might become a "father" for a little girl.

The film suggests that the killer was the man burned inside the black van and that his fatal confrontation with the big lumber truck was the reason he didn’t show up in the park where the little girl was bait. But we are never really sure.

The story has so much synchronicity with January 2001. A President has just been "retired" from office. In fact, Nicholson’s entire generation is dealing with the issues of retirement each day. Certainly it is one of those archetypal events in life. Great art has this way about showing up at just the right moment in time.

© John Fraim 2001. All rights reserved.