Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) is a detective who, on the verge of retirement, goes to one final crime scene. The victim is a child named Ginny Larsen and when Ginny’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) demands that Jerry not only promise to find the murderer but that he pledge of his immortal soul that he’ll do it, it’s a pledge that Jerry takes seriously. Jerry’s partner, Stan (Aaron Eckhart), manages to get a confession from a developmentally disabled man named Jay Wadenah (Benicio del Toro) but Jerry doesn’t believe that the confession is authentic. When Wadenah commits suicide in his cell, the police are ready to close the case but Jerry remembers his pledge. He remains determined to find the real killer.
Even though he’s retired, the case continues to obsess Jerry. He becomes convinced that Ginny was the latest victim of a serial killer and he even buys a gas station because it’s located in the center of where most of the murders were committed. Jerry befriend a local waitress named Lori (Robin Wright) and, when Lori tells him about her abusive ex, he invites Lori and her daughter to stay with him. Lori’s daughter, Chrissy (Pauline Roberts), is around Ginny’s age and when she tells Jerry about a “wizard” who gives her toys, Jerry becomes convinced that she’s being targeted by the same man who killed Ginny. Even as Jerry and Lori fall in love, the increasingly unhinged Jerry makes plans to use Chrissy as bait to bring the killer out of hiding.
The Pledge was Sean Penn’s third film as a director. As with all of Penn’s directorial efforts, with the notable exception of Into The Wild, The Pledge is relentlessly grim. Freed, by virtue of his celebrity, from worrying about whether or not anyone would actually want to sit through a depressing two-hour film about murdered children, Penn tells a story with no definite resolution and no real hope for the future. The Pledge is a cop film without action and a mystery without a real solution and a character study of a man whose mind you don’t want to enter. It’s well-made and it will keep you guess but it’s also slow-paced and not for the easily depressed.
The cast is made up of familiar character actors, most of whom probably took their roles as a favor to Penn. Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Noonan, Patricia Clarkson, Sam Shephard, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, and Mickey Rourke have all got small roles and they all give good performances, even if it’s sometimes distracting to have even the smallest, most inconsequential of roles played by someone familiar. Most importantly, The Pledge actually gives Jack Nicholson a real role to play. Jerry Black is actually an interesting and complex human being and Nicholson dials back his usual shtick and instead actually makes the effort to explore what makes Jerry tick and what lays at the root of his obsession.
Though definitely not for everyone, The Pledge sticks with you and shows what Jack Nicholson, who now appears to be retired from acting, was capable of when given the right role.