At first glance, "The Pledge" may appear to be yet another police procedural where a cop must track down an elusive serial killer through well-worn narrative territory. However, director/actor Sean Penn, in his third outing behind the camera, takes what could have been a cliché-ridden thriller and sends it off in a fresh and unexpected direction. Thus, instead of being yet another tired entry into the 'serial killer' genre, "The Pledge" becomes a haunting combination of psychological drama and character study about a man who becomes undone by his obsessive quest for closure.
At the beginning, we learn that veteran Reno, NV homicide detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson of "As Good As It Gets"), after years of faithful service, is about to retire. Unfortunately, despite the opportunity to catch up on his fishing, it is clear that Jerry is less than comfortable with being 'put out to pasture'. With only six hours left until the end of his official last day on the job, Jerry leaves his going away party to assist in the murder investigation of a little girl, Ginny, in a nearby town. When he breaks the bad news to the girl's parents, the grieving mother (Patricia Clarkson) makes Jerry swear 'by his soul's salvation' that he will find the man responsible for her daughter's brutal murder. It is a moment that will forever change the trajectory of Jerry's life, the first step in his tailspin into madness.
Within hours, the police have a suspect in custody, a retarded Native American named Toby Jay Wadenah (an unrecognizable Benicio Del Toro, who also appears this week in "Snatch"). Detective Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart of "Erin Brockovich") extracts a confession from the suspect, though Jerry is skeptical of Toby's comprehension of the interrogative process. Unfortunately, Toby is able to grab the gun off a sheriff's deputy, which he turns on himself. With a murder confession and a dead suspect, the case is closed.
However, Jerry is not satisfied with the outcome of the case, and he soon finds evidence indicating that Toby may not have been the killer. At Ginny's school, he learns that she had a secret friend called 'The Wizard', who was dressed in black and drove a black station wagon. Furthermore, Jerry uncovers unsolved murders with similar circumstances in neighboring towns-- murders that could not have been committed by the late suspect. Despite the evidence, Jerry's former boss (Sam Shepard of "All the Pretty Horses") refuses to reopen the case, and instructs him to begin his retirement.
Without the support of his former colleagues, Jerry begins an investigation of his own. He purchases a gas station on the main road linking all the murder sites, and keeps his eyes out for the 'The Wizard' and his black station wagon. It is here that he meets single mother Lori (Robin Wright Penn of "Unbreakable") and her eight-year old daughter Chrissy (Pauline Roberts). Though Jerry and Lori are only friends at first, their relationship deepens after Lori is beaten by her ex-husband, compelling Jerry to open up his home to them.
However, Jerry has not let go of his 'pledge', and he becomes increasingly obsessed with tracking down 'The Wizard', particularly when it appears that Chrissy may be the next target. And so begins the twilight of Jerry Black, a man whose life is slowly torn to tatters by a promise that he cannot keep.
The films of Sean Penn the director have typically been more about mood and atmosphere than story, and "The Pledge" is no exception. However, unlike his earlier efforts, "The Indian Runner" and "The Crossing Guard", "The Pledge" places more emphasis on the story, which is more or less told in a coherent manner. Though this latest film still suffers from the same laggard pacing and directorial indulgences that afflicted his earlier efforts, the gradual build-up in suspense and red herrings found in the script (penned by Jerzy and Mary Kromolowski, based on the novel by Friedrich Durrenmatt) are able to more or less hold the audience's attention throughout the two hour running time.
It is also in the film's latter half that things become more interesting. Instead of the usual plot points associated with your typical 'serial killer thriller' (such as the 'big chase' in "The Watcher"), "The Pledge" becomes introspective, examining the toll that the pursuit has taken on the protagonist. With the single-minded desire to catch 'The Wizard' governing his every decision, are Jerry's hunches correct? Or are they merely fabrications of his obsessed and paranoid mind? And if the opportunity presents itself, what would he be willing to risk in order to fulfill his 'pledge'?
Holding "The Pledge" together is Jack Nicholson, who also appeared in Penn's last film, "The Crossing Guard". With his intensely-expressive thesping, Nicholson remains steadfastly credible and compelling throughout, whether he is pursuing what may be a non-existent nemesis, or building a home for his newfound 'family', and he adeptly handles his character's slow descent into insanity. Assisting Nicholson is a who's who of Hollywood actors, who each turn in small, but effective performances: Vanessa Redgrave ("Girl, Interrupted"), Harry Dean Stanton ("The Green Mile"), Mickey Rourke ("Get Carter"), and Helen Mirren ("Prime Suspect").
At a time of the year when studios are typically dumping their low-caliber offerings into theaters, it is a welcome surprise to see a film of such daring and quality being released. With its slow yet unrelenting build-up to an unexpected, poignant, and tragic ending, "The Pledge" is a film that rewards the audience for its patience.