Jerry Black is a beaten man. Although we're never told so outright, you can tell this within minutes of the opening of "The Pledge" through several clues: He begins the film talking to himself, his hair looks like a bed of nails and he's got a look on his face that's perpetually stuck halfway between wary and weary.
Plus, he's played by Jack Nicholson, who in the good old days - before his full bore loony persona took over - specialized in playing characters who just aren't right for this world, and know it. Nicholson is terrific here, in a role that demands he act, rather than just be Jack. And while this obsession-obsessed thriller from director Sean Penn, based on a novel by Swiss author Friedrich Durrenmatt, ends on a note that ignores much of what preceded it, audiences could be forgiven for being too mesmerized to notice.
The film opens with an unkempt Black (the film rarely allows him to be kempt) muttering to the winds, scratching his leg and looking decidedly lost. The story then unfolds in flashback, and we see Jerry on his last day as a Nevada homicide detective. The time has come to retire, and everything about him says that time hasn't come a moment too soon.
But his job being what it is, Jerry ends up involved in one last case, and it's a nasty one: An 8-year-old girl is found in a roadside snowbank, brutally murdered. When the local cops prove a little too skittish to do anything other than avert their eyes, Jerry volunteers to break the news to her unsuspecting parents.
Now, "The Pledge" doesn't concern itself much with whys; this is neither the first nor last time Jerry is going to do something without offering a clue as to motivation. Maybe he's so dead inside that this sort of stuff doesn't affect him. Maybe something about this girl touched him. Or maybe he's just got a job to do. Nicholson's performance fiercely resists offering much in the way of insight - probably because Jerry doesn't much know why himself.
That lack of clarity is a theme "The Pledge" will revisit again and again, and it proves a mixed blessing to the film. For as relentlessly honest as Nicholson's take on Jerry is, the movie, somewhere in the course of its two-plus hours, owes its audience something by way of explanation. Penn's languorous pacing is risky and laudable, if ultimately disingenuous; a film with no answers is ultimately as frustrating as one that has them all.
Faced with the parents' grief, Jerry makes a crucial mistake; he pledges to the mother that he won't stop looking until the killer is found.
Even when a suspect (an unrecognizable Benecio Del Toro) conveniently confesses to the crime, then even more conveniently kills himself, Jerry can't let go. Something about that mother and that little girl put the hook in him and, retired or not, he's not going to close this case until he's satisfied the killer has been found.
So he keeps on digging, and discovers a vague pattern of similar murders involving young girls in red dresses. His former co-workers are convinced he's a few bricks shy of a load, but Jerry has turned into a man obsessed. He moves to the area where he believes the next murder is sure to occur, and while there meets Lori (Robin Wright Penn, complete with chipped tooth and haggard makeup), a hardened single mom struggling to raise her cute, young daughter.
Jerry and Lori stumble into a relationship, and it isn't long before this ex-cop has turned into both a surrogate husband and father. His life, apparently, is finally being threatened with happiness.
If only he could get this case out of his head, if only he could stop flinching every time he sees a black minivan (which the killer drove) or a guy with long black hair (which the killer had) or a little toy porcupine (which the killer apparently handed out to his victims).
"The Pledge" never allows either Jerry or its audience a moment's peace, and that's good. And Penn, in his third directorial effort (the first where he didn't also pen the screenplay), has peppered his cast with big names - Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, Sam Shepard, Mickey Rourke, Harry Dean Stanton - doing fine work in roles that amount to little more than cameos.
Still, one can't help but wish the film was more up-front with its audience.
And without giving anything away, the ending is a major shocker - not so much for what happens, but for what it seems to have forgotten. It's as though much of what came before it in the film never happened.
Starring Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn
Directed by Sean Penn
Released by Warner Bros.
Rated R (violence and language)
Running time 124 minutes
Sun score * * *