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These days, one can’t get within earshot of actors without hearing them pontificate about “the process” and “making choices” and “being in the moment.” On Bravo’s Inside the Actors Studio, host James (“That’s not chocolate on my nose”) Lipton’s unctuous colloquies with Sharon Stone, Meg Ryan, and other distinguished artistes attempt to trick viewers into believing that acting is a more demanding occupation than, say, newspaper delivery or garbage collection. Listening to this pretentious twaddle, one longs for the days when actors spoke their lines, took their paychecks, and went home. As the self-effacing Robert Mitchum, whose work in Out of the Past, The Night of the Hunter, and Cape Fear has yet to be surpassed, once observed: “Had I known acting is as easy as it is, I’d have started sooner. It is really just like being a plumber. You pack your bag, check your tools, and do it.”

No contemporary actor takes his craft more seriously than Sean Penn. In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Benicio Del Toro managed to assert, during one of the garrulous host’s rare silences, that his contemporaries regard Penn with the veneration that previous generations accorded to Marlon Brando. Unquestionably, Penn is a gifted—if wildly inconsistent—actor. His uncompromising dedication has yielded some extraordinary performances, notably his Oscar-nominated work in Dead Man Walking and Sweet and Lowdown. But he’s also capable of such shameless showboating as his over-the-top turn in Hurlyburly or, as in Up at the Villa, sleepwalking through a role that he considers unworthy of his talents.

Since making his directorial debut with 1991’s The Indian Runner, a moody descendent of East of Eden, Penn has frequently expressed his desire to retreat behind the camera. This ambition was abetted by his friend Jack Nicholson’s willingness to appear in Penn’s second feature as director, 1995’s The Crossing Guard, about a distraught father’s attempts to avenge the death of his 7-year-old daughter, run down by a drunk driver. Both films were conceived as actors’ showcases, filled with meaty dramatic moments at the expense of substance and structure.

The Pledge, adapted from Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1958 novella, again casts Nicholson as a man obsessed with a child’s death. Screenwriters Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski transpose the setting from Switzerland to rural Nevada. An 8-year-old girl’s mutilated body is discovered on the day of homicide detective Jerry Black’s retirement. After examining the grisly crime scene, Jerry (Nicholson) volunteers to break the news to the child’s parents. Her stricken mother extracts a vow from him that he will find the killer.

Later that day, ambitious young detective Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart) wrests a confession from Toby Jay Wadenah (Benicio Del Toro), a mentally defective young man with a police record, whereupon Toby grabs a policeman’s pistol and commits suicide. Unlike his colleagues, Jerry refuses to believe the case is closed. Driven by evidence provided by one of the girl’s classmates as well as his solemn pledge to her parents, he perseveres in his efforts to track down the real culprit. Obsessed by this mission, he lays a trap for the killer, endangering the lives of Lori (Robin Wright Penn), a hard-luck waitress whom he’s befriended, and her young daughter, Chrissy (Pauline Roberts).

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Penn’s handling of The Pledge’s first hour is remarkably gripping, free of the acting-class self-indulgence that marred his previous directorial efforts. Enveloped by an icy, barren landscape that recalls the symbolic settings of The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction, the film’s multidimensional characters are introduced in swift, telling strokes that artfully suggest their complex inner lives. The scene in which Jerry breaks the tragic news to the girl’s parents is brilliantly staged in a barn filled with white turkeys. Shooting from a distance, Penn dispenses with dialogue, allowing the body language of the characters to express their horror and disbelief.

But Penn’s pacing flags in the film’s second hour. In an effort to demonstrate that he’s as attentive to images as to actors, he dilutes the narrative with pseudo-poetic pictorial effects—local-color vignettes, slow lap dissolves, and fancy photographic superimpositions. These slack stylistic digressions make it difficult for Penn to recover the taut tension of the opening reels in time for the film’s oddly muffled climax, which unwisely alters the resolution of Dürrenmatt’s book. At the end of the novel, everyone learns the killer’s identity, but that revelation arrives too late to alter the fates of its doomed characters. In the movie, only the viewer knows who committed the crime—a tactic that diminishes Dürrenmatt’s meditation on the cruel workings of fate.

As one might expect from Penn, The Pledge abounds with strong acting, from the central contributions of Eckhart and the director’s wife to supporting roles by Sam Shepard, as Jerry’s boss, and Helen Mirren, as an insightful psychologist. Only a fool would dismiss Nicholson’s earnest, detailed performance, but I found it less than fully persuasive. Uncharacteristically muted—the normally volatile actor barely raises his voice above a mumble—Nicholson invests Jerry with a lifetime supply of nuanced behavior. But his wounded smiles and haunted looks seem designed to elicit admiration rather than evoke belief. Like Meryl Streep, he never lets us forget how hard he’s working. Vanessa Redgrave’s quietly heart-rending performance as the dead girl’s grandmother strikes me as an example of subtler, less self-conscious acting. Shot in close-up, Redgrave’s one-scene cameo is deeply felt and devoid of any trace of calculation; only after it ends do you remember that she’s arguably the greatest English-language actress of the past half-century.

The talents of another upscale acting ensemble are squandered on The Gift, a ponderous, formulaic Southern Gothic thriller written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson. Cate Blanchett stars as Annie Wilson, a compassionate young widow with telepathic gifts struggling to raise her three sons in a swampside Georgia town. Annie’s clients include Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi), an emotionally disturbed auto mechanic, and Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank), a desperate housewife abused by her redneck husband, Donnie (Keanu Reeves). When sluttish socialite Jessica King (Katie Holmes), the fiancée of mild-mannered school principal Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear), vanishes, Wayne and his future father-in-law, Kenneth King (Chelcie Ross), enlist Annie’s help in explaining her disappearance. Annie’s psychic visions lead to a gruesome revelation, triggering a series

of events that threaten her and her children’s survival.

Early in his career, director Sam Raimi won praise for his Evil Dead movies, a pair of inventive, low-budget gross-out horror pictures redeemed by outrageous special effects and a perverse sense of humor. His subsequent mainstream productions have yielded an assortment of misfires, including The Quick and the Dead, For Love of the Game, and A Simple Plan. The Gift is Raimi’s misbegotten attempt at a prestige picture, but his lumbering presentation of a script riddled with red herrings and cheap shock effects neutralizes the contributions of his players, who speak their lines in an assortment of what they imagine are Southern accents.

Although unflatteringly photographed, Blanchett struggles to add depth to her role. (Throughout the second hour, her pink, watery eyes mirror PETA posters of rabbits subjected to mascara testing.) Ribisi recycles the twitchy, mentally retarded routine he unveiled in The Other Sister. Swank’s agent must have blackmailed the Oscar winner into accepting a thankless supporting part. As the voluptuous town tramp, Holmes, so appealing in Wonder Boys, is reduced to flashing her breasts and talking dirty. Kinnear contributes his usual blandness, and the superb stage actress Rosemary Harris is stuck with a blink-your-eyes-and-she’s-gone cameo as Annie’s deceased grandmother. Believe it or not, Reeves, porked out and sporting a scraggly beard, walks off with the movie’s acting honors.

The Gift’s press material proclaims that Raimi’s sluggish, cliché-ridden thriller is “ultimately a profound celebration of the human spirit.” I don’t expect you to believe that, either. CP