A child rape and murder obsesses retired cop Jerry Black, who is unable to let go of the case. When he makes a promise to track down the killer, his determination has unforeseen consequences.
Who would have thought that Sean Penn, the stoner in 1982's Fast Times At Ridgemont High, would turn out to be not only one of the most consistently interesting actors of his generation, but one of its more accomplished directors as well? It seems there's hope for Ryan Phillippe yet.
Slightly reminiscent of Paul Schrader's underrated Affliction (1997), The Pledge - Penn's third film as director - is a bleak, morally ambiguous yarn. It features a standout turn from Jack Nicholson (who also collaborated with Penn on 1995's The Crossing Guard), as a man whose obsession imperceptibly creeps up on him and finally poisons everything in his life to the point of madness. Sure, it isn't exactly feel-good fare, but then, not all movies can be As Good As It Gets.
Nicholson's Jerry Black begins as a movie cliche - the cop due for retirement who can't let go of a case, in this instance the brutal rape and murder of a little girl in the icy wastelands of Nevada - but he soon develops into something much more haunting and memorable.
A promise made to the dead girl's mother to catch the killer metastises into an overwhelming obsession, the roots of which remain mysterious. His move to an idyllic lakeside spot and meeting with battered wife Lori (Wright Penn) and her eight year-old child seem to herald a new start, but instead signals another dreadful stage in his quest and a catastrophic willingness to do anything in his power to keep his promise.
Nicholson is on top form, delivering a subtly moving performance. His backstory, apart from a penchant for Scotch and a couple of failed marriages, is kept deliberately shallow - all that matters is the increasing danger of his determination. Penn's direction, while sometimes painfully slow, is nevertheless full of atmospheric moments, and Chris Menges' (Local Hero) cinematography is coldly beautiful.
Possibly too slow and ambiguous for some tastes, The Pledge is a strangely frightening film that, despite a pat plot twist at the end, establishes a melancholic mood which refuses to disperse quickly. It also displays Nicholson at his best in years.