A Nicholson Knockout … Snitching on Snatch

A Nicholson Knockout

The Pledge , one of the best movies I saw in the year 2000, is now opening in the year 2001. Only the nitwits who get paid big bucks to figure these things out could come up with the dumb idea of opening a film with the quality and artistry of The Pledge in the already overcrowded market of mid-January. But here it is, fighting for attention before the Christmas trash has even been cleared away. Do not make the mistake of overlooking it. Considering the paltry quality of what’s out there now, it towers above the standard movie fare like Everest.

The credentials stand out like sentinels. Sensitively directed by Sean Penn. Based on a dark, compelling novel by the late Swiss novelist Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Carefully and brilliantly photographed by the celebrated British cinematographer Chris ( The Killing Fields ) Menges. Meticulously acted by an astounding Jack Nicholson and a distinguished cast that includes Robin Wright-Penn, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, Sam Shepard, Benicio Del Toro, Aaron Eckhart, Mickey Rourke, Lois Smith and Harry Dean Stanton. The result is an engrossing, hypnotic, unbearably suspenseful, dramatically sound and richly rewarding film in which Mr. Nicholson gives his most powerful and persuasive performance in years.

The Pledge chronicles the emotional and psychological awakening and downfall of an over-the-hill detective, Jerry Black, a Nevada homicide investigator who is shown as a man at the end of his rope in the very first scene–his face battered and broken as he leans against the crumbling wall of a deserted gas station, scratching his sockless ankles and muttering madly to himself. Who is he, and what sad circumstances have brought him to this disastrous collapse? We soon find out, in a scalding film about the tragic consequences of uncontrollable fate.

Jerry grapples reluctantly with forced retirement. His office has even chipped in to buy him a plane ticket to Mexico for some well-deserved marlin fishing. But his farewell Hawaiian luau is interrupted when a kid on a snowmobile discovers the mutilated body of an 8-year-old girl in the snow-covered mountains near Reno. With only six hours left before his retirement, Jerry takes it upon himself to notify the child’s parents, and becomes so moved by the grief of the mother (another brief but galvanizing performance by the excellent Patricia Clarkson) that he promises he will find her daughter’s killer. It’s a pledge that changes his life forever.

When a mentally retarded Indian fur trapper (Benicio Del Toro) is forced into a false confession, then commits suicide, the aggressive cop in charge of the investigation (Aaron Eckhart) thinks he’s wrapped up the case in record time. But the crafty old cop who no longer works for the bureau is unconvinced. Prying and probing on his own, with no leads or authority, Jerry uncovers clues that link the crime to a series of similar, unsolved juvenile murders and suspects a serial killer is on the prowl. Fervently devoted to honoring his pledge, he becomes a man obsessed with justice, convinced the killer will strike again. Jerry moves to a crossroads near the murder scene, buys a dilapidated gas station as a lookout point and starts a new life with a domestically abused waitress (Robin Wright-Penn) and her own 8-year-old daughter–but just when he finds the first stability and happiness in his lonely, tortured existence, the serial killer shows up again.

His skeptical ex-boss (Sam Shepard) thinks he’s a victim of stress. His old cop buddies think he’s turned into a fool and a clown. Jerry makes the moral decision to trap the maniac by using the innocent, trusting little girl who loves him like a father as human bait. Then, as the suspense mounts with screaming tension that makes the blood pump faster in the viewer’s pulse, a diabolical twist of fate lands a blow in one of the most intense and gripping finales ever filmed. Mr. Dürrenmatt, whose most celebrated work is The Visit , was famous for his existential dilemmas. This time he creates the apocalyptic vision of a man who spends his life solving a mystery, but when he does, nobody will believe him. The psychological twist in the harrowing finale throws Jerry into a downward spiral of madness and leaves the audience electrified with shock.

This is clean, thoughtful, impeccable filmmaking by a director whose timing and creativity behind the camera are as precise and immaculate as his acting. Mr. Penn, moving the action from the Black Forest to Nevada, milks every rueful detail for maximum impact in an American landscape filled with believable snafus: the grandmother (Vanessa Redgrave) who lives above a year-round Christmas shop which, in itself, provides a clue to the mystery; the shrink (Helen Mirren) who makes a psychic prediction that the killer is still at large; the children’s drawings of porcupines and a giant shrouded in black. Calling in favors from a lot of great actors who are personal friends, Mr. Penn gets a richness from his cast seldom seen in today’s films–all working from a script of bracing rawness, painting a canvas of undeniable authenticity, bearing sharp witness to the most mundane events while telling a hair-raising story whose psychological veracity is utterly palpable. From turkey farms to country fairs, no setting is dull, and the way Chris Menges photographs them, they become works of American folk art. No clue is so superfluous that it doesn’t relate to the entire puzzle, and the leisurely pace is underscored by a sense of cinematic anxiety and impending doom that makes your skin crawl.

The Penn-Nicholson team has worked together before, in a critically revered but publicly overlooked film, The Crossing Guard . Their partnership comes to full dramatic fruition now, in a film that is even better and more accessible. Mr. Nicholson, with a face cleaved into lines of rancid butter and eyes feverishly darting like a terrier’s, looks like Wimpy, the hamburger-eating character in Popeye comics. Mr. Nicholson is always great, but in The Pledge he breaks new ground. As a man in crisis, both dutiful and delusional, who finds his heart and orchestrates his destruction at the same time, he delivers one of the most complex and wrenching performances of any actor in years. If The Pledge had been released in 2000, he would undoubtedly have landed on everyone’s Best Actor list. Make your own pledge to see him now; he will knock you right out of your shoes.

Snitching on Snatch

Moving from the sublime to the downright nauseating, there is a thing called Snatch . Avoid it at any price. Guy Ritchie is the scruffy director who makes incomprehensible British gangster flicks that require subtitles. He is probably more famous as Madonna’s new husband. His middle name, in either case, is Dubious. His previous film, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels , died a quick death at the American box office. If we’re lucky, history will repeat itself.

Exploring reality and naturalism is not his forte. His films are caricatures of London lowlife, Hogarthian melting pots of multiracial villainy and filth in which everyone on view is slaughtered quickly on the way to the Scrubs. Snatch is an ultra-low-budget, incoherent mess shot on the run in the streets of London’s less salubrious slums–an abrasive, energetic and plotless muddle about an underground populated by alien thugs with names like Bullet-Toothed Tony, Doug the Head, Boris the Blade and Franky Four Fingers.

Franky (Benicio Del Toro again, this time hopelessly miscast) is a jewel thief disguised as a Hasidic Jew who steals an 84-carat diamond the size of a matzoh ball and mercifully gets his head blown off before he has to suffer through the rest of the movie. The diamond falls into the hands of an army of subsidiary half-wits, whose efforts to keep the gem and fix an illegal bare-knuckle fight before the end credits are thwarted by their uniform stupidity. As the characters arrive in groups of twos and threes, we meet a ruthless promoter of illegal dog fights who chops up his victims and feeds them to his pigs, a Russian maniac, a gang of brainless Jamaicans with a 400-pound chauffeur who can’t squeeze into their getaway car, a camp of murderous Irish gypsies, a Turkish hood, and assorted bookies, assassins, mobsters and street toughs colliding and collapsing in antic mayhem.

The most head-scratching element is Brad Pitt, playing a gypsy bare-knuckle fighting champion who babbles incessantly between bloody knockouts in a language of gibberish all his own. You literally cannot understand a single word he says. He is in good company. On the rare occasion when something decipherable seeps through, it comes out sounding like “Oo tuk’a jam outta you feckin’ doughnut?” The over-the-top violence is rough, bloody and gruesome as the goons burn a woman alive, chop off arms and knife each other in the genitals. After almost everyone in the cast is dead, the diamond is swallowed by a vicious dog that eats plastic toys and squeaks when it walks, at which point whoever is still alive tries to catch it before they end up fed to the pigs themselves.

None of this makes one lick of sense, and racism, misogyny and homophobia run rampant throughout. As one critic pointed out, Mr. Ritchie is savvier than his material: The opening chat among the fake Hasidic Jews en route to a robbery in Antwerp is about the nature of virginity and is a riff stolen from the opening scene of the equally loathsome Reservoir Dogs , in which the crooks discuss the hidden agendas in Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” It’s an inside joke, fans, sort of a married-guy thing. Duh, and so what?

Too cruel and disgusting to be a comedy and too demented to be taken seriously, Snatch is a miserable pile of swill that plays out like a sudden street massacre staged by the Three Stooges. Now that Mr. Ritchie is married to a self-invented American pop star whose career is already dead in the water, there’s no telling what we can expect. The only thing worse than a Guy Ritchie movie would be a Guy Ritchie movie with Madonna. And that’s apparently what’s in store for us.