Certainty and Ambiguity in Justice: ‘Just Cause’ and ‘The Pledge’

A little white girl has been murdered. A non-white suspect is in custody for the crime. However, an older outsider suspects that the case might be more complicated than initially suspected, which infuriates actual law enforcement. His quest for justice will put him, his wife, and his young daughter in danger.

This is the premise of both Just Cause (1995) and The Pledge (2001). While they share a similar premise, the films have a radically different approach of how to handle the material.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead.

Just Cause

1986. The Florida Everglades. A young girl named Joanie Shriver has been murdered. Police arrest and easily convict Bobby Earl Ferguson (Blair Underwood) after a confession. Ferguson receives the death penalty. Eight years later, anti-death penalty law professor Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery) becomes suspicious that Ferguson’s confession may have been coerced by Detectives Tanny Brown (Laurence Fishburne) and T.J. Wilcox (Christopher Murray).

While Tanny Brown remains convinced of Ferguson’s guilt, Ferguson convinces Armstrong that the real killer is Blair Sullivan (Ed Harris). Is Ferguson telling the truth or is it all an elaborate scheme to free him so he can kill again?


Just Cause is based on a more detailed best-selling novel by John Katzenbach. A reporter in Miami before he became a novelist, many of Katzenbach’s heroes are Floridian journalists. His first novel In The Heat of Summer (1982) became The Mean Season (1985) and his later novel would later become Hart’s War (2002).

The film is executive produced by its star, Sean Connery. In creative terms, this means that Connery helped design this movie into a star vehicle for himself. When being interviewed for the film De Palma (2015), director Brian De Palma said that Connery always searched for roles to get him away from his James Bond character. Unlike Bond, Armstrong acts as less of an action hero. His character carries a tape recorder and not a gun.

Its director, Arne Glimcher, has worked mostly as an art collector and gallery owner. Glimcher had begun his film career as an associate producer on Legal Eagles (1986), a comedy set in the Art World. As a director, he had previously directed Mambo Kings (1989), a film about Cuban American immigrants becoming musicians in America. His next film, The White River Kid (1999), is about another outsider going into the deep south. His last film to date is the art documentary Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies (2008).

All three of these men would end up shaping the final product.

The Pledge

On the eve of his retirement, Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) becomes involved in the murder case of a blonde little girl. He pledges to her mother (Patricia Clarkson) to find her killer no matter how long it takes. This will lead Jerry down a dark and destructive path to find “the Wizard,” a “giant” that the victim described and drew days before she died. He suspects that this man might be responsible for multiple crimes against victims of similar description.

When Jerry begins dating a woman who has a daughter physically resembling the victims, he is put on a destructive path leading directly to “the Wizard.” Will Jerry find his killer and save or day or is this just a fool’s errand?

Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Although it has the same premise, The Pledge focuses less on a plot and more on Jerry Black’s obsession with the killer. Even the ending is not the traditional ending for a story like this. This is by design of original author, Swiss writer and dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt.

As a writer, Dürrenmatt believed that there were no modern-day dramatic heroes, but that media would create temporary heroes in various forms. He also believed that modern society doomed the protagonist in stories.

The Pledge originally began as a book and another movie in 1958. While that film, It Happened in Broad Daylight, followed the same plot, producers gave the film a more conventional ending. While writing the screenplay, Dürrenmatt also wrote his preferred version of the story as a novel titled Das Versprechen: Requiem auf den Kriminalroman (The Pledge: Requiem for a Detective Novel). The novel would be adapted four times before Sean Penn decided to make it into The Pledge.

Sean Penn

When Penn became interested in the project, he decided to work on it with Jack Nicholson. It was the second film they had made about a man’s obsession with a little girl’s death after The Crossing Guard (1996). Penn also casts his wife at the time Robin Wright (credited here as Robin Wright Penn).

Along with Nicholson and Wright, Penn also casts multiple well-known actors for multiple one to two scene roles. Sam Shepard shows up as a superior officer. Vanessa Redgrave plays a victim’s music teacher. Helen Mirren plays a child psychologist. Mickey Rourke plays the father of a potential victim. After playing a serial killer in Manhunter (1986), Tom Noonan plays a priest who Jerry feels acts a bit too friendly with his new surrogate daughter. These small performances bring a certain texture and pathos to the movie.


What separates both movies more than just their style or characterization is their climax.

In Just Cause, Bobby Earl Ferguson does turn out to be the real killer. It turns out that his real target is Armstrong’s wife Laurie (Kate Capshaw), who let him stay in prison one night. While there, the other inmates castrated him. This leads to an action-packed climax involving high speed chases, knife fights, and so on. Both Tanny Brown and Paul Armstrong vanquish Bobby Earl and save the day. The film ends on an image of the Armstrong family together.

The Pledge has a more complicated meditation on justice and obsession. Neither the killer nor the Detective get away unscarred. In fact, the Detective sacrifices a potential new family for the case. Almost everybody in The Pledge drifts into morally grey territory including the hero.

Just Cause’s Style

Just Cause is basically a well-made monster movie. However, one of the questions throughout the movie is who the monster is. Could it be Bobby Earl or Blair Sullivan? Is Tanny Brown more menacing than expected? Since the film primarily cares about suspense and horror, it does not delve into existential or ethical questions.

Nothing drives this point home more than the portrayal of Bobby Earl Ferguson. In this film, he’s portrayed as a sort of Norman Bates figure without the crossdressing. He loves his Grandmother (Ruby Dee) so much, but seems menacing to many other people. The film opens by not showing Bobby Earl Ferguson’s face as he watches two kids wash his car.  This creative choice puts the audience in his perspective and makes him seem like a more of a menacing presence. Throughout the movie, the major question is whether or not he committed the crime. Early on in the film, Ferguson gives the bad guy speech of “you and I are just alike.” However, in Ferguson’s version, he is asking for Armstrong’s help. The film constantly hints that he could either be guilty or there could be something more sinister going on.

The film differs from the source novel in a few major ways. Besides compressing the novel’s timeline and story, the movie also changes its lead character. The book’s character is Martin Cowart, a burnt-out divorced Newspaperman who launches an investigation into Ferguson. Cowart also wins the Pulitzer for getting an innocent man off death row in the book. The film changes Cowart into Paul Armstrong, a happily married Scottish-American Harvard university professor who does not seem to know what he’s talking about. By doing this, it makes Armstrong into a clearer and more courageous hero.

Characterization and Inspiration

In the movie, characterization breaks down to quick short hands. Paul Armstrong plays the big city college professor in a small town. He could be described as a “coastal elitist.” At one point, killer Blair Sullivan refers to himself as “an old bad guy.” Every character that appears serves a very specific purpose to the story. The audience has probably seen similar characters in many other movies.

In fact, when it was released, Just Cause got unfavorably compared to multiple movies. The Harvard Crimson called the film a rip-off of True Believer (1989). Desson Thomson of the Washington Post lists a whole bunch of movies similar to it in his negative review. Both reviews list Cape Fear (presumably the 1991 remake) and The Silence of The Lambs (1991) as sources of inspiration. In multiple reviews, Arne Glimcher’s direction was described as professional yet uninspired.

The Pledge

The Pledge is more of a character study. While Just Cause focuses on the most basic details of each character, The Pledge dives deeply into each character. The character of Jerry Black is the sort of person who will stake out his own retirement party before leaving it early to investigate a little girl’s murder. He seems more comfortable investigating a case than he does in any other part of the life. He loves solitary activities like fishing.

Unlike Just Cause, the real killer is only glimpsed at once in a very mundane scene where Jerry asks for directions from his mother. Neither this character nor his mother are played by well-known actors. When the climax comes around, the killer gets killed in a fiery car wreck on the way, thus making the conflict about Jerry’s obsession within the killer rather than the killer himself.


In both films, the lead character is an older man who is the partner of a younger woman and a father to her young daughter. The Pledge’s version has a more complicated version of a nuclear family.

In Just Cause, Paul Armstrong has a wife (Kate Capshaw) and daughter (Scarlett Johansson). After cutting the extra familial conflicts from the novel, Armstrong comes across more like the police chief Brody character in the film version of Jaws. His family is inadvertently put in danger by his quest for justice, but it is not all his fault. He at first refuses the case until his wife insists. It turns out that she was the prosecuting attorney against Bobby Earl Ferguson in another case and still wants to help him.

The Pledge has Jerry Black becoming a boyfriend to bartender Lori (Robin Wright Penn) and surrogate father to her daughter Chrissy (Pauline Roberts). This is a family that is rough around the edges. Lori begins with film with a chipped tooth. When her ex-husband attacks her, she turns to Jerry for support and help. At first, it seems like a happy life. He plays the role of father well and pays to have Lori’s tooth capped.

However, Jerry’s characteristic obsession gets in the way of him being able to lead a happy life. At the beginning of the movie, he has already gotten divorced twice and this quest leads to him losing any future he has with Lori. The climax occurs when “the Wizard” contacts Chrissy with porcupine candies. Black decides to use Chrissy to bait “the Wizard” without telling Lori. This irresponsible act leads to Lori taking her daughter and leaving Jerry.

Depiction of Race

Just Cause and The Pledge feature much different approaches in their portrayal of race. This stems from their approach to entertainment.

Just Cause

Just Cause tells the story of a black man turning out to be a sexual predator and murderer. In order to make the story as apolitical as possible, the film constantly makes the point that race does not matter in this case. Part of this stems from the fact that the film is less interested in issues and more interested in thrills. In an interview, Connery said that he felt the issues (specifically the death penalty) were not as important as the entertainment value.

In terms of Bobby Earl Ferguson, the film presents race as not being an issue in Armstrong’s objective world. The opening of the film presents the story from Bobby Earl’s point of view, placing the audience more firmly in his perspective for the first half hour. However, in Armstrong’s investigation, everybody contradicts Bobby Earl’s narrative of being a victim. Some of the first seeds of doubt come when Armstrong learns that lead Detective Tanny Brown is black. Ferguson’s own lawyer (Ned Beatty) makes a point early on that his race would not have mattered. A black teacher witnessed Joanie Shriver get into Ferguson’s car. Detective Tanny Brown has always had an uneasy feeling about Bobby Earl, who used to hang out around elementary schools. Brown’s daughter was Joanie Shriver’s friend. At the end, Brown says he loved her “like she was his own.”

All of these choices make the point that race was not an important factor in the case.

The Pledge

Race does not come up too much in The Pledge, as pretty much every character is white in the story. The only time it comes up is when police question Native American Toby Jay Wadenah (Benicio Del Toro) at the beginning of the film. Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart) has already decided that Wadenah is guilty. When we first see Krolak outside the interrogation room, he draws a very stereotypical picture of a Native American while quickly singing “ten little Indians.” Before he goes in, Krolak says that only is he going to get a confession, but he is going to get it in record time. Krolak then gets a confession out of Wadenah in a way that Black finds disgusting. After getting this confession, Krolak does a victorious gesture towards the camera. This scene presents a much more disturbing portrait of the treatment of such minorities by law enforcement officers.

Portrayal of Law Enforcement

In both films, law enforcement is portrayed as being indifferent or hostile towards the Protagonist’s quest for justice. Both cases have lots of vague evidence.

Just Cause’s police are frustrated and infuriated by Armstrong’s quest. They have their killer and a confession. Tanny Brown says that it is not “a textbook confession,” but that the case hangs together by the thinnest of threads. He downplays Bobby Earl’s story.

In The Pledge, Penn portrays police as fallible complex group of people. Besides the deeply flawed Stan, there’s also a bumbling officer at the scene who makes tons of mistakes. Jerry’s superior officer Eric Pollack (Sam Shepard) does not care too much for the retiring Officer’s involvement in the case.

Similarly, the police could care less because they have a confession and the evidence Jerry brings forward is based on sketchy specifics. When presenting the case to Pollack, Black explains that he believes a serial killer is in the area because of the physical similarities between this victim and two other cases. Pollack tells him that those traits match many child murders. When Jerry pulls out a drawing the victim made of “the Wizard,” Pollack tells him that he is acting crazy. Similarly, when Jerry shows the drawing to a psychologist (Helen Mirren), she says that it could just be the product of a child’s imagination. Although Black has conviction, he has based this conviction on gut feelings and evidence that does not seem tangible.


In both films, we see the same premise. However, while Just Cause uses its premise to create a thrilling movie, The Pledge utilizes the premise to probe a man’s psyche.