"The Pledge" demonstrates once again that casting Jack Nicholson in the lead is a surefire formula for motion picture success.
The actor turns in a memorable performance as Jerry Black, an aging homicide detective who leads the audience on a misguided -- and ultimately debilitating -- search for justice.
Directed by Sean Penn, "The Pledge" starts off as a standard police procedural, complete with child victim, a serial killer and a passel of subtle clues.
But midway through, the film turns into a psychological thriller as Penn explores Black's deteriorating mental state, following the detective's obsessive pursuit of a killer (real, or imagined?) to an unsatisfactory conclusion.
Nicholson is perfect for the part because the most obvious sign of Black's decline is evidenced not from dialogue but rather from his facial expressions and body language, the actor's trademark skills.
With his eye for the darker side of life, with his focus on character, Penn proves again that he is a director of the first magnitude.
In Penn's hands "The Pledge" is a compelling tale -- it's based on a novel by Friedrich Durrenmatt -- in part because of the director's sense of style and atmosphere and setting, all which add to the film's dramatic impact.
Sam Shepard, Benicio Del Toro, Mickey Rourke, Harry Dean Stanton, Vanessa Redgrave and other marquee players appear, some as mere cameos, in the film, a clue to Hollywood's respect for Penn's directing skills.
Here's the story line: Black catches a murder case -- a child has been raped and murdered in the mountains around Reno, Nev. -- on the day of his retirement from the police force.
Taken by the brutal nature of the case, he ends up promising the child's mother he will catch the killer no matter what, the nature of the pledge in the film's title.
In the hours after the body's discovery, the police round up a Native American suspect (Del Toro) who commits suicide after confessing to the crime, an admission rejected by Black but accepted by just about everyone else.
Convinced the killer is still roaming the Reno area in search of child victims, Black devotes his retirement to catching him, in keeping with his pledge. But his pursuit of justice turns into an out-of-control obsession that eventually ruins his life, as well as the lives of those around him.
At times, the audience may wish for a faster pace as Penn reveals the details in pokey fashion, and the ending may prompt some complaints. But "The Pledge" is a film you don't want to miss.
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