No good deed goes unpunished in "The Pledge," director Sean Penn's brutal, unremittingly bleak adaptation of a 1958 Swiss novel about a serial child killer. This updated version of the story chillingly probes the psyche of a troubled cop (a grizzled, world-weary Jack Nicholson) who faces a moral crisis: How far should he go to fulfill a promise to the grieving mother of a slain little girl? Is it worth risking his soul, the love of a good woman and possibly his sanity to honor that pledge?
Nicholson, last directed by the multitalented Penn in 1995's "The Crossing Guard," digs deep within himself to produce an evenly measured, tremendously affecting performance as Det. Jerry Black, who's retiring from a long and distinguished career with the Reno (Nev.) Police Department. Black's supervisor, Eric Pollack (Sam Shepard), and his successor, Det. Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart) hoist their glasses to toast the twice-divorced, veteran cop's storied accomplishments and his new life of endless relaxation. Still, they're not all that unhappy about beginning a new chapter in the life of the homicide department.
A last-minute case, however, delays Black's departure. (It's perhaps the only clichéd plot device screenwriters Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski insert into the film's script.) In a scene evocatively photographed by cinematographer Chris Menges, the grisly remains of a little girl -- her name, we learn, was Ginny -- are discovered within a beautiful expanse of Nevada mountainside, just before they can be covered by a blanket of snow.
Black, unable to resist involvement in the investigation, stays officially attached to the case until the chief suspect, a mentally handicapped man of Indian descent (Benicio Del Toro, at first unrecognizable), confesses to the crime.
"There can't be such devils," wonders Ginny's distraught mother (Patricia Clarkson). Her words ring in Black's ears, and they're soon accompanied by other strange voices. "There are such devils," he answers.
Unconvinced of the accused man's guilt, Black continues to search for the real killer on his own, allowing Penn to introduce us to a gallery of damaged folks portrayed by a remarkable cast. Ginny's grandmother (Vanessa Redgrave) painfully shares her memories of the girl's piano lessons and afternoon milk-and-cookie snacks. A weight-lifting deputy who Black visits in a nearby town admits that he experienced "an adrenaline rush" while investigating a similar murder. Also popping up in cameo roles are Mickey Rourke (as the emotionally shattered father of a missing girl), Helen Mirren (as an unusually perceptive psychological examiner), and Harry Dean Stanton (as -- what else? -- a weatherbeaten geezer who sells his rural home and gas station to the relocating Black).
The arrival on the scene of a waitress named Lori (Robin Wright Penn) and her young daughter, Chrissy (Pauline Roberts), holds out the promise of redemption for the appropriately surnamed Black. All is sweetness and light for 30 seconds or so, and then those haunting sounds and images return to inflict further torture.
Suspects loom large and then quickly recede as Black's obsessive visions lead him to desperate measures. "The Pledge" thrives on a sense of dread that grows ever greater. It's an eerie, troubling piece of work -- a carefully crafted, existential thriller that represents a major artistic leap forward for Penn.