Oath Busters

Sean Penn makes good on promising directorial career in angst-ridden The Pledge

We soon wonder whether Jerry is motivated or merely mad; his brain spins with images and utterances laid out along the way like clues, if indeed there is a murderer still on the loose. The film, based on a 1958 novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and adapted by Jerzy Kromolowski and wife Mary Olson-Kromolowski, suggests that the bogeyman lives only in Jerry's mind; in his eyes, everyone's guilty until proven innocent (even, perhaps, himself). The Pledge is not too unlike the films of M. Night Shyamalan: It presents itself so slowly that when the truth makes itself known, the audience is already vulnerable and is easily shattered by the revelation.

It's not hard to see why actors love working with Penn, even in the smallest roles. He lets them speak monologues even when they're saying nothing at all. A love scene between Nicholson and Wright Penn is shot entirely in close-up; we see their eyes, the way the dimness begins to flicker for only a moment. Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke and Michael O'Keefe show up for brief moments, and watching them interact with Nicholson is like watching McEnroe and Connors going at it during their prime. They give and take unselfishly; they're never more important than what they're saying . . . or not saying.

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