Photo by Douglas Curran

A man stands talking to himself in a dust-blown middle of nowhere. He’s not wearing any socks, and from the way he’s jabbing at the thin air, it’s clear he’s driven the world away. This man is Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson). When, jumping back in time, we meet him again an instant later, he’s suddenly whole — sane, squared-away, a Nevada homicide detective who nevertheless leaves his own retirement party to investigate the murder of a child high in the mountains. The rural cops have a shaky suspect (Benicio Del Toro), but are so disorganized they haven’t even broken the news to the little girl’s parents. Jerry takes this upon himself. It will be his last act as a cop, he assumes, but fate, bubbling in the depths of his character, has other plans. The little girl’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) responds to a vulnerability in Jerry’s manner and asks if he’ll make a promise. He warily agrees. She holds up a handmade crucifix and makes him swear on his “immortal soul” (her emphasis is absolute) to track down whoever did this. He swears.

This devil’s bargain in God’s name is the moral epicenter of The Pledge, the new film directed by Sean Penn. Here, Nicholson and Penn make clear they’re less interested in who done it than in wrestling with the mystery of one stubborn soul. This is rare, for Nicholson. Despite the fact that he’s long been careful to counterbalance his Jack-the-Joker persona by choosing such unexpectedly ambitious roles as those in Ironweed (1987) and Blood and Wine (1994), he hasn’t submitted to a demand this nakedly unglamorous since the last time he was directed by Penn, in The Crossing Guard (1995). Penn’s own gifts as an actor seem, in turn, to bring out the best in Nicholson, as well as the rest of the cast: Clarkson breathes a fire into the religiosity of this grieving mother whose aura is wonderfully half-holy, half-sinister. And her performance necessarily reverberates through Nicholson’s: Jerry clearly makes this dangerous pledge only because he so desperately needs to believe he has an immortal soul. He even looks uncertain over just what it is he’s giving away. Vanessa Redgrave, Sam Shepard, Helen Mirren and Harry Dean Stanton are among the grieving folks and skeptical authority figures Jerry deals with as he goes through the charade of retirement but secretly keeps the case alive. Mickey Rourke is particularly moving as a man whose daughter has gone missing, a man so tortured he can’t even look out a window without cringing, much less face Jerry’s questions.

Eventually, Jerry grows so obsessed that he even buys a gas station in the mountains, near the geographic center of an area in which several children have been murdered. The cinematography by Chris Menges nicely catches the raw might of the Sierra Nevadas (this is the first of Penn’s films to show any dramatic sensitivity to landscape), an effect brought to energetic fusion by editor Jay Cassidy. As the years pass, Jerry attracts a loving woman into his life (Robin Wright Penn, also bravely unglamorous but singing true), whose beautiful little daughter (Pauline Roberts) perfectly matches the profile of all the murder victims. The script by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski (based on a novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt) builds inexorably to this excruciating crossroads. From here it becomes terrifyingly ambiguous as to whether Jerry is courting disaster or trying skillfully to head it off, whether he’s using the little girl as bait or simply trusting that he’ll be equal to any moves made by any killer, should one reveal himself.

There is, after all, that awful prophecy of Jerry in ruins branded into our memories by the first scene. Coming away, with the whole of the story and its mysteries still burning in my brain a week later, The Pledge has the character of a parable, one dramatizing an unwritten commandment: Thou Shalt Not Tempt Fate. Penn’s approach to storytelling isn’t as clean or objective as, say, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s, whose Decalogue similarly trafficked in solitary people who make desperate gambles with their souls — and a sense of objectivity is what’s missing here. Kieslowski achieved a subtle sense that God is watching (even if God comes to the party disguised as blind chance), but Penn, grappling with like phenomena in the twists of his own story, invests the whole of his faith in people. His actor’s temperament disposes him to depict heaven and hell as things human beings create from within, while coping with the brutal chanciness of this world. Even so, to tell a tragedy well in the first person is to tell it well. Is it hubris to gamble with your immortal soul, even when you’re not sure you have one? Jerry pledged on a cross, and fate nails him to a question mark.

THE PLEDGE | Directed by SEAN PENN | Written by JERZY KROMOLOWSKI and MARY OLSON-KROMOLOWSKI | Based on the novel by FRIEDRICH DÜRRENMATT | Produced by MICHAEL FITZGERALD, PENN and ELIE SAMAHA | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide

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