As someone who would choose total creative control on a ten-minute short over helming a thirty million dollar epic with Jerry Bruckheimer breathing down my neck, I have always been a rabid proponent of the notion that the director should have final cut. Always, always, always! A movie is like a director’s baby, I say – and losing final cut is akin to being pregnant for nine months only to have the child yanked from the womb and surreptitiously handed over to those with more cash to care for it, if less love. So I empathize with Sean Penn. I understand how important “The Pledge” must be to him. And it pains me to say that even the most well intentioned parents are not qualified to care for their kids.
What if the parent is a teenage mom? What if she thinks she’s perfectly qualified to care for a newborn with lots of love and a little welfare? And what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if someone with a bunch of cash stepped in to help her out, helped her to raise that expensive bundle of joy? Wouldn’t the sacrifice of control in exchange for a better life for the child be worth it? Wouldn’t it be purely selfish not to accept?
Well, Sean Penn, you’re being selfish – and “The Pledge” has suffered for it. But it’s not just your “baby.” That’s the problem. Everyone involved has suffered because someone from the outside – someone not so blinded by subjective love – didn’t step in and say, “Hey, I know you think it’s working, Sean, but, well, it’s not. If you’d just let Jim over here set you straight we can make this mediocre mess into something great. You owe it to your talent. Hell, you’ve got Nicholson here doing his best work since “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”! You agree with me? Great! Jarmusch, let’s get to work!” Jim Jarmusch directing “The Pledge”. Now that would be something to pay ten and a half bucks for. Or even Atom Egoyan. Let David Lynch handle the scenes in which hundreds of turkeys bear witness to a parent’s worst nightmare, where the cattle-herd wander into the hero’s car chase. Just imagine the possibilities! Sam Raimi’s “The Gift” has a trailer almost identical to the one for “The Pledge”. I hear the movie is a near disaster. Maybe Sean and Sam could have swapped films.
When Sean Penn has the track record of Jarmusch or Egoyan or Lynch or Raimi, that’s when he’ll deserve to have final cut. Just because you’re able to conceive doesn’t make you a qualified parent. This is where Sean Penn has deluded himself. Sean Penn is a great actor – one who could easily go head to head with Nicholson or Redgrave or Mirren, the legends performing in his film. The problem is that it’s the greatest actors who make the worst directors. Didn’t he see “The Two Jakes”?
It’s a mystery to me why Penn doesn’t just shoot a couple shorts with no-names in order to learn his newly chosen craft. If he’s serious about filmmaking, he’d better know that acting and directing are akin to speaking English and speaking French. Yes, they’re both languages, but I personally wouldn’t fly over to Paris and just assume that I could speak French because I’ve mastered the English language. This is what Penn is attempting to do. Actors are internal people. They have to be. It’s all about focusing on the inside, paying attention to instinct and trusting that the instrument – the self – after years of fine-tuning will play naturally. This is the exact opposite of filmmaking! Directors have to be external people. They have to focus on the big picture and all that is not going on inside them. Their instruments are the lighting, the camerawork, the set design and the actors. Sean Penn has incredible instincts as an actor, but this does not translate into directing. And the biggest problem is, if you screw up as an actor, then you’ve only really hurt yourself. Good actors can work around bad actors (and, indeed, often use them to make themselves look better). No one can work around a bad director, though. A bad director takes even the best actors down with him.
I guess this is why it was so excruciating for me to sit through “The Pledge”. All these amazing actors gave flawless performances with a teenage mother at the helm. Patricia Clarkson comes to mind. When her character started to plead with the Nicholson character to swear his sole salvation on the cross that was built by her murdered daughter’s hands, I thought only in Hollywood do people with murdered children speak like that! What kept me from laughing was Clarkson’s face, full of anguish and pain so real I knew she must have been going through her own Strasbergian hell right then and there. Ditto for Vanessa Redgrave and her cliché-ridden monologue about tour guide angels swooping down to escort recently deceased children. By the end of the monologue I had stopped listening, so mesmerized was I by Redgrave’s performance. She could have been reading the craft service menu for the day and I would have wholeheartedly agreed with Nicholson’s character’s response of “Beautiful.” How dare Sean Penn waste such enormous talent!
The only thing that kept me from leaving the theatre – besides the acting – was curiosity about the ending. Basically, Penn attempted to make an art film out of a pretty standard fare Hollywood script. For me, it was this constant tightrope-walking game of which way the film was finally going to go that kept me intrigued. I guess now’s the point where I tell all of you who don’t want the ending revealed to skip the rest of my review.
So you’ve been warned. Though it may be hard to believe, I sincerely wanted Penn to redeem himself with a spectacular art film ending. I wanted him to negate all the superficiality that came before. And he could have done it. I had the perfect ending in my head. I was willing to forgive all his past moviemaking sins if only he’d do this one thing for me. And which way did he go? Hollywood or “indie”? You’re reading this review, aren’t you?
Penn did the worst thing imaginable. He tried to pass off a Hollywood ending as something Resnais or Bunuel might approve of. He let his DP do a Terence Malick camera dance to the music of “don’t let the audience think too much about what they don’t want to think about.” I’ve heard Penn say in interviews that people have problems with the ending because it’s not definite – since he doesn’t let you know if the child murderer was actually the man killed in the car crash for certain. Well, I could care less about definite endings – only good ones. And for me, a good ending would have been if Toby, the Indian character played by future legend Benicio del Toro, and the man everyone but Nicholson’s character thought was guilty in the first place, had been linked to the killings through DNA. Why do I say this? Because this would have rendered the entire film a wild goose chase. Nicholson’s character would have spent two hours searching for a killer who had already been caught, and subsequently committed suicide, twenty minutes into the movie. Now that would really piss off an audience. But there would be an incredibly valid reason for doing it. Unlike “The Usual Suspects” which used the device of “it was all made up in someone’s head” as a slick parlor trick that told us nothing new about the characters, using a child murderer as a Maguffin would bring a very deep meaning to the film. No longer would “The Pledge” be just another catch-a-killer thriller. The movie wouldn’t even be about the race to catch a child murderer anymore! It would be most definitively about mid-life crisis and the lengths one man will go to keep from facing his own mortality. Powerful stuff for sure – especially since the majority of theater goers will find themselves facing the prospect of retirement and empty time, but virtually none will ever have their child murdered. But Penn didn’t want a clear ending. Saying the child murderer was killed in a car crash would have been too Hollywood. Saying the entire two hours had been about one man running around in circles would have “cheated” the audience. Well, one of the jobs of a director is making clear choices. That’s why they get final cut.
Review originally published with the "Reel Roundtable"