Sean Penn, bless him, does not make ingratiating movies — Fast Times at Ridgemont High excepted, Mr. Hand. As an actor, he is most vital when he's opening wounds (Dead Man Walking, Sweet and Lowdown). The same goes for his two films as writer and director: The Indian Runner (1991) and The Crossing Guard (1995). Penn's attention to life's harsh truths doesn't draw much box-office action, but actors — the better ones — are understandably eager to work with him.
Which brings us to The Pledge, Penn's third and best film yet as a director (so far, he hasn't acted in any of them). Jack Nicholson, who starred in The Crossing Guard, gives a strong, stinging performance as Jerry Black, a Nevada cop who is still enjoying his retirement party when the body of a raped and murdered eight-year-old girl is found in the snowy mountains. It's Jerry who breaks the tragic news to the girl's parents, played by Patricia Clarkson and Michael O'Keefe. On the turkey farm where they work, only the mother's scream pierces the clamorous gobbling. Aided by the keen eye of cinematographer Chris Menges, Penn achieves a visual eloquence that is swift, stark and devastating.
Based on a tense 1958 novel by Swiss author Friedrich Dorrenmatt, the film has been updated and Americanized by screenwriters Jerzy Kromolowski and his wife, Mary Olson-Kromolowski. But the cop remains the story's driving force. Jerry makes a pledge to the girl's mother to solve the case. He doesn't buy the confession that detective Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart) coaxes from a mentally challenged Indian (Benicio Del Toro). "Stan practically blew the guy," says Jerry, dismissing Stan's touchy-feely interrogation and insisting to his boss (Sam Shepard) that the real killer, who preys on little girls, is still free.
Penn has called The Pledge a "retirement-crisis story," since Jerry, a two-time loser in marriage, defines himself by his job. This lifer can't simply hand in his badge and go fishing, so he launches his own manhunt. A stunning array of actors, including Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, Harry Dean Stanton and Mickey Rourke, play key figures in Jerry's quest. True, some of these one-scene roles, however deftly played, are just cogs in the plot wheel. But each scene, whether you find it plodding or profound, reveals more about Jerry, a complex, conflicted character that old ham Nicholson — in his first film since winning a third Oscar (for 1997's As Good as It Gets) — plays with gripping restraint. It's painful to watch Jerry throw away a chance at love with a waitress, sharply drawn by Robin Wright Penn, by using her daughter (Pauline Roberts) as bait for the killer. In crafting a fierce, fragmented, downbeat film about a character who makes the wrong decision as a man by being right as a cop, Penn flies in the face of what sells in Hollywood. Godspeed.