"The Pledge" re-teams Penn with his "The Crossing Guard" star, Jack Nicholson, to tell the story of rural Nevada police detective Jerry Black, a restless sort whose impending retirement is unhinged the very night of his retirement party by the rape and murder of a small girl in the surrounding woods. When a schizophrenic Indian (Benicio Del Toro) spotted near the scene is arrested, circumstantial evidence appears to seal the case. And while less obvious mitigating factors remain, Black's colleagues--nicely played by Aaron Eckhart and Sam Shepard--dismiss them as insignificant. But Black--a passionate fisherman--can't help but feel that the big one has literally gotten away.
Attempts to simply turn his back on the episode, however, prove fruitless as obsession raises its ugly head, following Black into the remote, small-town environs where he seeks to build a quieter post-retirement life. Everywhere he turns, rumors, hints and clues to the killer's identity seem to call out, beckoning him to fulfill his parting pledge to the dead girl's mother that the killer would be caught.
While Penn doesn't shy from employing some fairly cheap and well-heeled tricks to generate tension and unease on the part of the audience, he does so with an eye toward discrediting the philosophy behind such trickery, refusing at every turn to deliver a predictable payoff, even allowing tension to simply dissipate without any payoff whatsoever. Penn's goal isn't so much to create a conventional thriller (as the film's ads would suggest) as to invite viewers into the psychological genesis of obsession, rattling the audience's grip not only on its emotions but its very perception of those emotions.
Penn's approach to directing both his camera and his actors has always felt more influenced by the great directors of the 1970s, and the same holds true here. Watching Nicholson exhibit uncharacteristic restraint recalls the younger Nicholson of "Chinatown" fame, here situated in a story that bears more than a passing resemblance to Sidney Lumet's 1982 classic, "The Verdict." But there is still more to the film than immediately meets the eye or even the brain. Tainted only by the potpourri of celebrity cameos that pop up throughout, "The Pledge" is powerful and compelling in a curiously interior way, staying true to the Friedrich Dürrenmatt novel on which it is based by having its story evolve from character (rather than the other way around).
Penn's task is well-served not only by a superb cast but the efforts of first-rate collaborators, including the great cinematographer Chris Menges and composers Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt as well as editor Jay Cassidy. Starring Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright-Penn, Aaron Eckhart and Sam Shepard. Directed by Sean Penn. Written by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski. Produced by Michael Fitzgerald, Sean Penn and Elie Samaha. A Warner Bros. release. Drama. Rated R for strong violence and language. Running time: 124 min.