Posts Tagged ‘nicholson’

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Double Feature: ‘The Pledge’ and ‘The Crossing Guard’

May 26, 2010

You know who’s a bad-ass, totally underrated director? Sean mother-effin‘ Penn, that’s who!

Like many, I took notice of Mr. Penn’s beautiful adaptation of Into the Wild, almost completely oblivious to his other directorial efforts. I remember taking a stab at watching The Pledge a few years ago and not being able to stick with it. And I remember why – too slow. When Cinematical recently called Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Pledge his best, I figured I’d try again, if only to re-evaluate the acting.

The result. Best cinematic experience I’ve had in 2010.

Nicholson and Penn’s first actor-director collaboration was The Crossing Guard which I watched the very next day.

Second best experience this year. So hang on tight and check out the reviews below.

The Pledge (2001)

“I made a promise, Eric. You’re old enough to remember when that meant something…”

After seeing this movie in the right frame of mind, I can understand why it left me cold the first time. This movie begins as a fairly standard police procedural, but defies convention to become an existential journey for Nicholson’s character Jerry Black, a newly retired cop who is haunted by his last case involving the rape and murder of a school-aged girl and the titular promise he made to her grief-stricken parents. It was this bucking of convention that originally led me astray and which I now admire as a braver, more realistic experience.

The murder is initially pinned on a mentally challenged Native with a history of sexual assault and Black is forced into retirement after the case is shut. It’s here the movie shifts from standard cop fare to a more contemplative focus on Nicholson’s character. He buys a gas station in the quiet wilderness of a fishing town, befriends a local bartender (Robin Wright, who does great work as always) and becomes a father figure to her young daughter, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the earlier victim.

Nicholson gives an incredibly subtle, yet deeply layered performance as a man obsessed with keeping his word to find the killer he believes was never caught and the film as a whole is supported by a wonderful cast including Aaron Eckhart, Benicio Del Toro, Sam Shepard, Mickey Rourke and Tom Noonan as the creepiest man of faith you’re likely to see on film.

Without spoiling the ending, I can say it is brave in what it brilliantly offers and denies the viewer as far as a resolution. Sean Penn shows a clear understanding of how to use the form to create a movie which will haunt you in much the same way Black is haunted.

The Crossing Guard (1995)

“Freedom is overrated.”

The perfect companion piece to The Pledge. This is Penn’s second effort as director and while this film is smaller in scope, it tackles equally huge internal conflicts. The Crossing Guard also flips convention on its head with a tale of revenge where the characters seem to be reversed.

Nicholson plays a Freddy Gale, a jeweller ruined by the death of his daughter at the hands of a drunk driver. His only remaining comforts are the alcohol and strippers he keeps on hand at all times. He can’t even forge a real friendship amongst the other sleazy middle-aged men who seem to idolize him. One day he shows up unannounced at his ex-wife’s home – where she raises Freddy’s two young sons with her new husband – to gleefully inform her that the man who ran down their daughter is out of jail and he intends on killing him.

Meanwhile, John Booth, the drunk driver, is released from prison into the custody of loving parents and welcomed back into his gang of hippie-ish friends. Despite all the support and efforts to get him back on his feet, Booth – as played by David Morse, is so racked with guilt he can barely function.

The film is about an unresolved issue that takes our two leads down a path which threatens to consume them both. Nicholson cleverly creates a character whose motivations should be understandable but are undermined by who he’s become to get his revenge; while Morse is genuinely likeable to all he encounters despite his inability to forgive himself for what happened. It’s this unusual, disconcerting dynamic that carries this un-showy revenge narrative. It’s the welcome opposite of the glut of Daddy’s Revenge films we’ve seen lately (Edge of Darkness, Death Sentence, Last House on the Left to name a few).

Once again, Penn gets great work from his supporting cast too. Anjelica Huston more than holds her own dealing with Nicholson’s hatred and desperation. And while Robin Wright has much less to do in this film, she makes for a tempting return to the world of the living for Booth.

The climax is drawn out over the course of a foot chase that takes our characters literally and figuratively to their unexpected conclusions. Remarkably, after wallowing in misery and anger for almost two hours, The Crossing Guard manages to end on a note of optimism and redemption. It’s incredibly beautiful, if only the slightest bit contrived.

Let’s hope Penn gets back behind the camera soon. I, for one, cannot wait to see where he takes me next!