Directed by: Sean Penn
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, Sam Shepard
Of life's tragedies, the murder of a child has to be the most horrible. The grinding grief imposed on the survivors never ends, and no one involved can remain untouched. The search for justice is insatiable and all too often impossible. On the surface, The Pledge -- director Sean Penn's (The Crossing Guard) electrifying psychological thriller -- is the tale of retired cop Jerry Black's (Jack Nicholson) obsession with finding a serial killer who preys on children. Though plagued with a legion of his own demons, Nicholson pledges to the grief-stricken mother of one victim "on my soul's salvation" to find the "devil" who destroyed her child. In other words, he will keep his pledge or be damned. Nicholson's Pledge performance is, in a word, brilliant. Subtle, charming, repulsive, ghastly, heart-breaking, Nicholson's moods express more layers of humanity in one brief scene -- in every scene -- than most actors can do in a lifetime. And director Penn surrounded Nicholson with a stellar constellation of actors, both adults and children, including unforgettable cameo performances from Benicio Del Toro (Traffic ), Vanessa Redgrave (Smilla's Sense of Snow), Helen Mirren (British TV's Prime Suspect), Mickey Rourke (Barfly), Harry Dean Stanton (The Green Mile) and Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff ). Most notable is Penn's real-life wife, Robin Wright Penn (Unbreakable), as Laura -- a desperate, abused single mother who lets herself believe she and her little girl will find a new start in Nicholson's protective wings, only to realize he's a hawk using them as bait to flush out his quarry. At one point, a shell-shocked grandmother relates to Nicholson a Hans Christian Andersen tale about how the angels allow children who are taken before their time to return to spread flowers from heaven on all their favorite places on Earth. Like a hovering phantom himself, director Penn continually soars above the action -- as if Nicholson's merciless march toward his fate was programmed from on high. Based on a novel by Swiss writer Friedrich Durrenmatt, The Pledge has been transported from the Alps of the 1950s to the Sierra Nevada mountains of today, placing a mantle of exquisite natural beauty over sites of human cruelty. Every scene shot by cinematographer Chris Menges (The Killing Fields) is full of unpredictable color and movement, as if every actor's nuance and every piece of set decoration was playing its part in the tragedy. Giving voice where speech is impossible is the haunting soundtrack by Hans Zimmer (The Thin Red Line ). The Pledge is the most "European" American movie in years -- filled with fascinating characters, lean dialogue, no pointless action, and subtexts with meaning and ambiguity. Credit here goes to the screenwriters, the relatively unknown husband-and-wife team of Jerzy and Mary Olson-Kromolowski. You'll hear more from them. You'll also be hearing much more from Penn. Part of a director's skill is convincing other talented professionals to risk joining his vision, and The Pledge overflowed with a talented cast and crew. I suspect they knew something we'll all realize one day: If he doesn't self-destruct like the Celtic heroes that seem to course through his veins, director Sean Penn is decidedly on his way to becoming a legend himself.