Jack Nicholson's last Sean Penn-directed film was 1995's The Crossing Guard, a handsome and well-acted but laughably heavy-handed acting-class exercise stretched to feature length. The fact that The Pledge is better seems almost inevitable; the only surprise is the degree of improvement. Adapting a novel by Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Penn displays a new maturity in almost every aspect of his direction, though Nicholson's starring performance is so compelling that Penn's progress almost doesn't matter. Nicholson plays a Reno police officer who leaves his own retirement party to investigate the rape and murder of a young girl in one of the surrounding rural communities. Before long, his fellow officers apprehend a mentally handicapped Native American (Benicio Del Toro) observed at the scene of the crime, but his confession leaves Nicholson unsatisfied. Abandoning a vacation at the last minute, Nicholson launches his own investigation, discovering that the murder seems to have been part of a series of similar killings. When his theories meet with dismissal, he decides to set up shop, literally, near the scene of the crime. The ideas at work may be familiar, but Penn's approach remains novel: Seasons pass behind Nicholson, and their uneventful progress appears to lend credence to his colleagues' refusal to believe a scenario based largely on a hunch and a child's drawing. Suspense films have no cheaper ploy than children in jeopardy, and The Pledge plays with this notion, revealing that Nicholson's obsession runs even deeper than it first appears. In fact, by laying aside his most familiar tricks, Nicholson keeps much of his character beneath the surface, resulting in some of his subtlest work. His protagonist resembles an aged Jake Gittes (Chinatown) whose cynicism and sense of moral outrage have hardened into a silent, wearying devotion to duty. A few gratuitous flourishes aside—dig that smoking clown—Penn's direction remains understated in the best possible sense, letting his carefully established setting and memorable performers (Harry Dean Stanton, Mickey Rourke, Helen Mirren, Aaron Eckhart, Robin Wright Penn) propel the film. Not that Penn doesn't deserve abundant credit, displaying a strong visual sense early and often. But, like all good directors, he makes it easy to forget his presence behind the camera of this dark and resonant mystery.
More from The A.V. Club