ThePledge by Sean Penn
ThePledge by Sean Penn
Today,films have become ways through which the society learns and expressesvarious issues. Most of these films are adapted from books, whichplays the same role in highlighting societal issues. ThePledgeby Sean Penn was adapted from Friedrich Durrenmatt’s novel of thesame name (Penn, 2001). The novel reveals the darkest side ofsociety, which Penn carries into the film as he narrates the story ofthe detective, Jerry Black. However, the story sounds formulaic whenreading the novel but the film certainly uses a unique execution thatportrays a detective story with a difference. Although there are somesignificant differences between Sean’s film and the novel, it doesnot affect the overall themes presented by the book. Durrenmatt’snovel is used to express his criticism of detective fiction genre,which is similarly portrayed by Sean Penn in his film (Durrenmatt &Agee, 2006). The film begins just as others police movies where adetective is on the verge of his retirement and the potential serialkiller on the loose. However, it takes a different turn and startdefying the popular genre clichés. Accordingly, the film is about aman obsession to do whatever it takes to fulfill his promise andprove himself instead of a detective working diligently to solve amurder (Penn, 2001).
Usingsimilar characters as those used in the novel but with differentnames, Penn tells the story of a Nevada police detective, JerryBlack, who is retiring. However, during Black’s retirement party,his replacement brings sad news about the brutal murder of a younggirl to the police chief, and Black joins in the conversation afternoticing a change in their tones. Black decides to join in theinvestigation because he has not yet retired (Penn, 2001). At thecrime scene, the girl’s body is poorly preserved, and the policeofficers in charge are reluctant to notify the victims’ parents,which angers Black and provokes him to do something about it. Thus,Black decides to tell the girl’s parents and assures them that hewill find whoever killed their daughter. In response, the girl’smother gave him a crucifix and Black gives a solemn pledge not torest until he finds the killer. The film, just as the Durrenmattdoes, gives the audience a situation where one individual is placedat risk to benefit the whole society. For example, a young girl ismurdered to bring forth a dedicated retiring detective to work on thecase and find the serial killer for the benefit of the society(Durrenmatt & Agee, 2006).
BothPenn and Durrenmatt examine the risks of doing the right thing andthe extremes that some people will go to which end up being wrong.Most detective films usually concentrate on action and standardpolice drama progression of the narrative for the detective to solvea crime. However, ThePledgeshifts from this genre into a psychology and portrays the mysticaltransformation of Black where the story he investigates becomespathology rather than being a mere pursuit of a serial killer (Penn,2001). Mostly the detectives work to solve cases, but Penn presentsthe detective character as one who needs to solve a case to savehimself. At first, the film seems to adhere to the common clichés ofpolice procedural but it enters deeper into the mysteries of evil,innocent, and a man keen to validate himself. The detective genre’sstories revolve around murder, and the detective has to work his orher way through evidence and various obstacles to obtaining justice.Consequently, Penn’s film portrays the detective film in a verydifferent perspective as it is not about the murder but rather abouta character’s need (Penn, 2001).
Boththe film and the movie create a story with a conclusion that does notinclude the cliché aspects of detective fiction genre. In thepopular detective genre, there is usually a murder where the policecapture the killer. However, Durrenmatt defies this cliché bypresenting the readers with a novel that covers the fear in everydaylife and real horrors that people are concerned about (Durrenmatt &Agee, 2006). Likewise, the film starts with a central concept andmoves towards long detective works and investigations, but later endwith a very intriguing conclusion because they do not catch thekiller. Instead of having the usual climax to an apparently certainfate that the viewers expect, the audiences are left wondering untothe event that took place before the police saw a van with aporcupine hanging from the window (Penn, 2001). Therefore, it defiesthe happy ending tradition in detective movies where the police catchthe perpetrator who receives a punishment according to his or hercrime. The end simply ignored the good police work conducted by Blacksince the killer dies before the detective could catch him and eventhe viewer did not get to know his identity. Consequently, it did notprove if Black is right (Penn, 2001).
Onthe other hand, Penn’s version of the story is quite different ascompared to the storyline used in the book. Penn departs from thebook by occasionally taking artificial direction, which shows aclichéd script, which seems to be irrelevant in promoting theprogression of the story and its central themes. For example, thefilm emphasizes more on the relationship between Lori and Black as itwill lead to the conclusion of the movie (Penn, 2001). Black goesfurther to buy a store-gas station in the area where the murders tookplace. Moreover, he makes friends with the local server, Lori, whohas a daughter who fits the description of all the victims. Loriturned out to be a victim of domestic abuse, and when the situationgets out of control, she leaves her abusive husband and seeks helpfrom the detective. Black decides to help Lori out by inviting her tostay with him. Hence, Penn defies genre cliché because he showsBlack as a unique detective who asks Lori to move into his housebecause he wants to help her and not due to tactical reasons such asacquiring evidence (Penn, 2001). After some time, Lori’s daughterinforms Black that she has a friend named the Giant, who gave herchocolate porcupines. Instead of following the evidence andquestioning witnesses like other films, it turns out that Blacklearns more about the killer through Lori’s daughter. Accordingly,Black learns of the killer merely through chance unlike the logicpresented in the detective genre. However, this is presenteddifferently in the novel (Penn, 2001). The detective visits anorphanage to adopt a young girl, but he does not qualify for theadoption. Therefore, he hires a local woman who happens to have ayoung daughter who has similar physical characteristics and age asthe previous victims to clean his shop. Additionally, he always takesthe young girl out with him at the front seat, which means that otherdrivers can easily spot her. Thus, he uses this method to trap thekiller. In the novel it is clear that the detective plans to use, theyoung girl as bait but Penn’s film presents the idea simply as achance (Durrenmatt & Agee, 2006).
Finally,although the film is slow in places and coupled with beautifulphotography, each scene adds to the story, which gives the film itsedge. Besides, it gives an almost accurate representation of theinformation and themes in Durrenmatt’s novel. It examines andcarries over the issues that are the center of Durrenmatt’s novel.Nonetheless, the film shows a different timing of event andpresentation of information compared to how Durrenmatt presents thecharacters and the events in the novel. For example, the film isdifferent in that Black sets the trap for the killer different fromthe way Matthai does it in the novel (Penn, 2001). Detective fictiondates back years where they represent the conflict between good andevil where the detective is seen as good and the killer is the evilone. However, the fine line of right and wrong becomes blurring inboth ThePledgebook and film as the actions undertaken by the lead detective are notuniversally moral and good. Therefore, it shows that at the end, thecrime is not always solved, and the justice is not always obtained inthe end.
Durrenmatt,F., & Agee, J. (Eds.). (2006). Thepledge.Chicago, Ill: Univ. of Chicago Press.
ThePledge.Dir. Sean Penn. Warner Bros Pictures, 2001. DVD.