Nowadays the myth of the American West refers more to Silicon Valley start-ups and Microsoft magic than anything soundtracked by Sergio Leone. Senn Penn, who may be vying for the position of Hollywood's most respected insider-outsider, sees it differently. His latest directorial effort takes place in washed-out Nevada, where gold or rushes of any sort are hard to come by. Penn teams up with Jack Nicholson again, in a film that shares the mood of their 1995 outing, The Crossing Guard, but stands poised to make a bigger impact.
Jerry Black (Nicholson) is a weathered cop just moments from retirement. Upon discovering the raped and mutilated body of a 7-year-old girl, he plunges into personal obsession, even making a solemnly religious vow to the child's mother, from which the movie derives its name. Sean Penn aims The Pledge at humanity's grit and broken smiles; here he casts wife Robin Wright Penn as a single woman with nothing to show from her previous marriage but scars, chipped teeth, and a young daughter. Black takes them in, and the worn-out mother initiates a slow plausible relationship between the two.
The bad news is that Black appears to be using her daughter as bait for the child killer. Although he's given up the badge, Black's investigations continue in secret, where they warp into fixation. All play and no work make Black a dull boy. The dying community forms a backdrop for an excavation of personal spoilage.
Penn has a lot of wattage on his hands, including his own considerable directorial ability. From illustrious actor to veteran director, Penn demonstrates maturity with The Pledge. He's often not sure where to place emphasis—or perhaps Warner Bros. wanted a conventional thriller—and at times the movie seems too loud, too fast for its own good. For it is the slow-broiling subtleties that Penn is after, and that Nicholson and cast, for the most part, deliver.