Wednesday, August 4, 2010

THE PLEDGE: Does Virtue Lead to Insanity?

All Star Cast... False Moral Premise... Sink Hole

Now and then I'll get feedback from readers and my shorter workshops that I should give more examples of false moral premises of otherwise good movies that do poorly at the box office to prove my point - that regardless of the cast, production quality, or director, or marketing - if you don't have a true moral premise you're doom to box offiice failure.

(But it's hard to write about things that don't exist... I mean a moral premise that either isn't there, or is so poorly formed it's hard to get a handle on it.) 

Well, I watched one tonight on DVD with Pam. It had all the promise of a great film.  THE PLEDGE stars one of my favorite actors, Jack Nicholson, and costars (in mostly cameo roles) Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, Benicio Del Toro, Michael O'Keefe, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, Sam Shepard, and Patricia Clarkson. HOW COULD YOU GO WRONG, Sean Penn (director)?

Well, all you have to do is believe something that isn't true, like a false moral premise, and make a movie about it. Here's a good take what the film's really about at the psychological level. Is it true?

Child abuse and murder leads to a quick end in the fires of hell; but
Keeping your word to find justice leads to drunken insanity. 

 No, the virtues and vices are not parallel, and neither is the consequence. That's because this story was made on an idea that is without a good foundation in reality.  The movie is filled with soft falsehoods.

If we attempt to construct a moral premise that COULD have been used for this story it may be:

Child abuse and murder leads to a quick end in the fires of hell; but
Protecting children from an abuser and murdered leads to justice. 

Had Jerry and the killer been pitted against each other in a cat and mouse game, and had Jerry some how, even inadvertently, been responsible for the killer's just death or imprisoned, this latter moral premise could have saved the movie.

I don't expect you'll go see it, I surely don't recommend it, so I'll give you the short synopsis here. The longer IMBD synopsis is here:

Jerry Black (Nicholson) takes on one last investigation as a retiring detective. He's probably the best detective the metro department has ever had. He's still got what it takes and he's motivated. A young girl is brutally murdered and he promises the mother, against his eternal salvation, to find the guy.  Like the victim, he discovers there have been several young blond girls with red dresses and very pretty that have been gruesomely raped and murdered, and all the crimes have taken place within a few miles of this one intersection in fishing country. He buys the gas station and C-store at that intersection to stake out the place and over time find the guy. Through a drawing Chrissey drew just before she was killed, he figures he knows the guy is tall, wears a black cap, gives out porcupine gifts and candy, and drives a black station wagon. By happenstance such a little girl (Chrissey) and her single mother come to live with Jerry in the attached home. He doesn't plan it but he takes advantage of the situation and uses the little girl as a lure to get the bad guy. When it looks like he's going to have the guy cornered, the perp, on his way to get Chrissey at a picnic table in the woods that Jerry has staked out with a SWAT team, the perp is killed in a firey blaze caused by a lumber truck that looses it's load on top of the perps car. Jerry never knows this happens (although it was on the only road to and from the spot he was staking out with Chrissey as lure). So, Jerry is left holding to his pledge, into old age, nearly dead drunk, cussing at God it seems, in front of his deserted, broken down gas station. We NEVER see the perp. We never know anything about him or his motivations. But because of Jerry's selfless integrity his life is ruined and now meaningless.

The filmmakers also demonstrate disrespected their audience's intelligence by telling a story that is morally not true (see MPS above), but he also disrespects us by introducing a mind bodging number of red herrings and coincidences.  The story:
  • Paints a number of Christian characters as simpleminded with IQ's in the low double digits. 
  • About the time Jerry thinks of using a little girl as a lure... behold the single lady that runs the restaurant has such a little girl, Chrissey. 
  • When Chrissey's father beats up her mother, mom and Chrissey comes to live with Jerry. We're reminded that she's the right age, right hair color, and when they go shopping Jerry picks out a red dress at the store. 
  • Jerry is watching the little girl carefully, but yet she gets lost at a flea market, and someone mysterious gives her a porcupine tick-tac gift.  But it's not the perp.
  • After promising Jerry not to talk to men without telling him, she does.
  • Jerry is a fisherman and is always "catching fish" with "lures."
  • The FIRST place he goes in his investigation is a Christmas store to ask directions which just happens to be where the perp lives. But we never see the perp there.
  • The antagonists (the perp) never tries to stop Jerry.
  • We never see the perp or learn anything about his motivation or background. 
  • The co-antagonists (his old police buddies) try to dissuade Jerry from the case, but in the end they help him, but then they leave him in the woods alone. There is no real antagonist. 
I'll stop here. But here's a great example of a big budget human drama ($45MM) with an all star cast (above), and in the domestic box office is does only $19MM... which is great if you have only spent $5MM, but I suspect $40MM of that budget was in hiring the principals. The production quality is excellent. Music... oh, yeah, the music was my Hans Zimmer.... another A lister.

Nothing helps a story with a false moral premise.

Now, Mr. Penn may think he respects his audience. I mean he spent a lot of time, and perhaps some money, on this picture. But he has never impressed me as someone who has a good grip on reality. This movie only serves to reinforce that.

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