The obsessions of mankind have always made for great stories--men and women driven to the brink of sanity by the personal demons that haunt them. From Captain Ahab to Salome to Batman, some of the greatest stories of all time are about the endless pursuit of pursuit.
With varying results, two new films explore the nature of obsession. Jack Nicholson, driven to right a wrong, squares off against fate in director Sean Penn's The Pledge. John Malkovich stars as a visionary filmmaker determined to make his movie--no matter what the cost--in Shadow of the Vampire.
Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) is a seasoned Reno homicide detective about to retire from the force. But on Jerry's last day on the job, he comes across a brutal case--the rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl. The aging cop vows to the girl's parents that he won't rest until the killer is brought to justice, and even after the prime suspect confesses, Jerry is convinced the real killer is still at large. Thus begins the most difficult case of Jerry Black's career--a career that has outlasted two marriages and is officially over.
Directed by Sean Penn and based on the novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Pledge features Nicholson in one of his best roles in years, delivering a quietly intense character study of obsession. Nicholson tones down his trademark crazy-guy caricature, which over time has become a self-parody, and turns in a performance reminiscent of his work in The Border. As Jerry settles into his new life of retirement, he carefully lays out his strategy for making good on his promise of seeing justice served and finding peace for his tortured soul. We quickly see that Jerry's adversary is not a cold-blooded killer but instead something he
can never cuff: fate.
Fact and fiction collide with mixed results in Shadow of the Vampire, a tale of artistic passion. The film is a fictionalized account of a true event--the making of F.W. Murnau's groundbreaking 1921 film Nosferatu. John Malkovich brings Murnau to life as a manipulative bastard who will do anything to bring his epic, Dracula-inspired film to the screen. The star of Nosferatu was a relatively unknown actor named Max Schreck, who, Shadow posits, was a real vampire. Murnau strikes a deal with Schreck (Willem Dafoe) to star in his film, but the vampire pretending to be an actor pretending to be a vampire quickly turns into a temperamental star. Demanding script changes and blood from the cast and crew (literally), Schreck himself becomes obsessed with trappings of stardom and, ironically for a vampire, immortality.
Shadow of the Vampire has at its heart an interesting concept that, sadly, isn't executed very well. Steven Katz's script clumsily jumps from tongue-in-cheek satire to horror to black comedy, without ever really knowing what it wants to be. Unlike Tim Burton with Ed Wood, director E. Elias Merhige doesn't seem to know what type of film he's making. Is it satirical homage to Murnau's Nosferatu? Is it a horrific metaphor of the artistic process? Merhige seems to want his film to be all things to all people; but with what feels like key scenes missing from the story, Shadow's fangs lack any real bite. Malkovich's Murnau brings very little to the manic-visionary-filmmaker archetype and ultimately fails to carry the film. Dafoe, however, is pure genius in his best role since Platoon. Like Martin Landau in Ed Wood, Dafoe completely loses himself in the bloodsucking persona of Schreck.
Neither The Pledge nor Shadow of the Vampire is groundbreaking, and both seem like they belong in another era. The Pledge is the far superior of the two, a brooding, fatalistic film--the kind that were made back in the late '60s and early '70s but have become a lost art in the age of test screening with lowest-common-denominator audiences. Shadow of the Vampire is reminiscent of the '60s horror films from Britain's famed Hammer Studios starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Both films feature actors at the top of their game. To see Nicholson and Dafoe so doggedly pursue their respective white whales makes both The Pledge and Shadow of the Vampire worth checking out.