The Pledge (15)

Review by Jack Foley

SEAN Penn comes of age as a director in this bleak and uncompromising thriller which marks a blistering performance by the mighty Jack Nicholson which should, at the very least, earn him an Oscar nomination.

Nicholson stars as Detective Jerry Black, a dedicated and decent cop on his final day before retirement, who opts to investigate the rape and brutal murder of a young girl. When the primary suspect, played by Benicio Del Toro, commits suicide while in custody and the case is closed, Black continues to delve into the matter, unconvinced by the `confession' and fuelled by a promise he made to the victim's parents that he would bring the killer to justice.

Working through his retirement, and in the face of increasing scepticism from former colleagues, Black becomes obsessed with the murder and quickly concludes that it is the work of a serial killer; so much so that he is prepared to go to any lengths to prove it no matter what the cost to himself or those around him.

The Pledge, while compulsive, clever and powerful throughout, does not make for easy viewing. In bringing Friedrich Duerrenmatt's book to the screen, Penn wanted to show audiences how "sometimes bad things happen to good people who are trying to do good things".

So anyone anticipating a routine Hollywood piece of escapism in which everything turns out alright would be advised to steer well clear. Not for Penn is the cliche ridden path of mainstream fare. Oh no. As he has already shown, in far less successful directorial attempts such as The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard (which also starred Nicholson), Penn likes to delve into the darker side of humanity and very seldom comes up for air.

But whereas, in earlier works, the deliberate pace and dark tone proved a turn off for critics as well as viewers, The Pledge proves that Penn, the director, has learnt well - and this is as accomplished a piece of film-making as you are likely to see all year.

Nicholson, also, is superb, rising to meet the challenge posed by the difficult material and turning in a truly heart-rending performance of a decent man driven to the edge by wanting to do the decent thing. And Penn makes a point of training the camera on the actor's world-weary face, allowing the star to do what he does best in a role which is screaming out for an award.

Even the support players shine, with Robin Wright Penn playing well off Nicholson as the single mother he `adopts' in his search for the killer, and Aaron (Erin Brockovich) Echkart effectively disagreeable as a former colleague.

There are also well observed cameos from the established likes of Sam Shephard, Harry Dean Stanton, Vanessa Redgrave, Benicio Del Toro, Helen Mirren, making this a real actors' piece.

If Penn continues to turn out work such as this in the future, then expect the actor-turned-director to be mentioned in the same breath as David (Se7en/Fight Club) Fincher or, dare I say, Kubrick very soon. Surely, there can be no higher praise. The Pledge is really one worth catching.