After the brutal murder of a little girl, a retired detective pursues
his own theory on the case, even though the suspect has been caught.
The Pledge (2001)
Directed by Sean Penn
Written by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski
Starring Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright, Aaron Eckhart, Tom Noonan, Pauline Roberts, Benicio Del Toro, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Patricia Clarkson, Sam Shephard, Michael O'Keefe, Mickey Rourke, Harry Dean Stanton, Costas Mandylor
Based on the novella by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge is a bit of an "under the radar" crime drama, even though it does appear on Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" list. This is a film that undoubtedly deserves more attention, as it features yet another career-defining performance from Jack Nicholson, a stellar screenplay, and one of the most infuriatingly brilliant endings I've seen in a long time. The Pledge is a film that underscores the pain that's found in obsession, even if it's for the right reasons. The killer is out there, waiting to strike, but nobody's looking for him anymore.
On the night of his retirement party, Detective Jerry Black (Nicholson) tags along on a call about a murdered little girl. After confronting the parents, Jerry swears to the girl's mother that he won't rest until the killer is caught. Shortly after, a suspect is caught, a mentally-impaired man who confesses to the murder under duress and then kills himself. Despite the overwhelming evidence, Jerry's not convinced. What follows is Jerry's slow descent into madness as he tries to connect the dots to uncover the true killer's identity, even going so far as to needle his way into a single mother's life so he can use her daughter as live bait. Nicholson's performance is unmatched, as he can play both sides of the coin perfectly. In the beginning, he's a decent man trying to save lives. By the end, he's willing to destroy two lives just to quench his obsession.
In the end, we are never told who the killer really is, though the hints are there. Due to circumstances out of his control, Jerry becomes trapped in his obsession for good, and it's maddening to say the least. The Pledge succeeds in toying with typical crime thriller tropes and delivering something truly original. It features a broad host of legendary actors delivering solid performances, as well as some heartbreaking depictions of how the murder of a child shatters a family. This film deserves to be seen a whole lot more than it has.