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The Daily Tar Heel

Penn's `Pledge' Highlights Maturity Despite Foul Plot

The Pledge Former bad boy Sean Penn has settled down in recent years. He married Robin Wright, was nominated for an Oscar for "Dead Man Walking" and began a directing career. This newfound maturity shines brightly in his latest, "The Pledge."

Jack Nicholson returns to the screen for the first time since his award-winning turn in "As Good as It Gets" and tears into his role as Jerry Black, a retired Reno cop obsessed with a serial killer targeting young girls.

His former department, however, thinks he's just chasing his tail. He investigates on his own, fixates on the daughter of a local bartender and gets in deeper than he ever thought possible.

Nicholson is of course wonderful, but it doesn't hurt that he's surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast. Most of the name players, like Sam Shepard and Vanessa Redgrave, have parts lasting just minutes, but they make the most of it.

Particularly impressive are Aaron Eckhart, best known as Julia Roberts' boyfriend in "Erin Brockovich," who hams it up as an archetypal macho cop, and "Traffic" revelation Benicio del Toro as a mentally ill murder suspect.

It goes without saying that the subject matter alone is unsettling, and since much of the film involves waiting for the child killer to strike again, multiple scenes of young girls unknowingly placed in danger are disturbing to the point of excessiveness.

This sensationalistic tendency is where the film starts to wear on the nerves. The beginning is a taut, engrossing murder mystery, but when it becomes a psychological drama, suspension of disbelief is required. Moreover, the screenwriters included a murky subplot on religion, but it just trips the audience up with its supposed significance.

The resolution itself disappoints since it does nothing to assuage the nasty taste of unpleasantness. And I guess it was too tempting for the screenwriters to pair up the most nauseating May-December romance (Nicholson and Wright Penn) since Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

But director Penn does the best with what he has. He loves the imagery of his mountainous setting and pays attention to minutiae like the condensation inside a coffee pot and the pendulous swing of florescent lights.

His meticulous attention to detail gives the film a rich sense of place, and he uses cool tricks like superimposing images of flying birds over Jack Nicholson's distraught face.

But however appealing the package, it doesn't make it more pleasant to digest.

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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