The Pledge is the third movie that Sean Penn has directed (after ”The Indian Runner” and ”The Crossing Guard”), but, with its haunting and ravaged performance by Jack Nicholson, it’s the first that may just edge its way onto the mainstream radar. Penn, as a filmmaker, has never met a moody pause he couldn’t overextend, but he’s got a real flair — for visual suspense, for landscape, for holding his actors in the throes of slow motion breakdown.
Based on a novel by Friedrich Duerrenmatt, ”The Pledge” is a psychological murder mystery in which the central character is at once investigator, possible suspect, and angst ridden carrier of the world’s woes, and damned if Penn doesn’t draw you inside this labyrinth of existential murk. The movie is just good enough to make you wish that he’d leave his artier inclinations on the back burner. He’s so enamored of the poetry of American doom that his eagerness to cast a mythic spell is both his strength and his weakness.
Early on, the mutilated body of an 8 year old girl is found in the Nevada snow. At the same moment, a retirement party is being thrown for Jerry Black (Nicholson), a weary homicide detective whose better days are long behind him. Basically, he’s a grizzled, potbellied slowpoke who likes to fish, but something makes him leave his own party to tag along to the murder site. The police nab a possible perpetrator, a mentally slow Native American with a rape conviction in his background (Benicio Del Toro inhabits the role with a flamboyant audacity that only an inspired actor can get away with). Jerry, however, can sense something isn’t right, and Nicholson, eyes glowing like coals out of a fleshy, tired face, shows you the old dog instincts that make him stay on the case.
Following a troubled meeting with the victim’s parents, in which the mother (Patricia Clarkson) exacts an elaborate pledge to God that he’ll find the killer, Jerry becomes obsessed. He digs up an unsolved murder that matches the grisly details of this one, and he then moves to the area, buying a gas station off the highway so he can linger there and fish — but mostly so he can uncover the secret of both homicides. After forming a liaison with a distraught roadhouse bartender (Robin Wright Penn) who has a daughter the same age as the two victims, Jerry becomes their loving caretaker, and we realize, with ghoulish fascination, that he may be using the little girl as bait.
Penn’s daring is that he doesn’t shrink from the investigation’s lurid, exploitative elements; he uses the victim’s classroom drawing of a ”giant” in a way that spooks us. Yet as the film slides from the intriguing to the contrived, the events acquire a metaphysical vagueness. Penn is a true talent, but there’s just enough languid pretension to ”The Pledge” to make you wonder if he’s ultimately more interested in parading his promise as a director than in fulfilling it.