Another dour, efficient directorial outing for outspoken actor/film maker Sean Penn, "The Pledge" is an everyday tale of doubt, insanity, and child murder. A throwback to a brand of relentlessly grim, 'realist' thrillers popular in the 1970s, it again pairs him with friend and ageing Oscar-favourite Jack Nicholson.
He plays Jerry Black, a veteran detective who leaves his retirement party to help his young gun replacement Stan Krolak (Aaron Eckhart) deal with the discovery of the body of a murdered little girl. Upon seeing her corpse and meeting her parents, he swears - the pledge of the title - to her mother that he will catch the person responsible.
You can't fault Penn when it comes to creating a mood. "The Pledge" is a raven-black tale with oppressive atmospherics, and the performances he draws, not only from Nicholson, but from wife Robin Wright Penn (as Nicholson's squeeze) and Mickey Rourke (in a scorching cameo), are excellent.
But this only just compensates for the perfunctory script, adapted from Swiss novelist Friedrich Dürrenmatt's book. As the story progresses the initially engaging investigation becomes increasingly laughable as suspects are bunged into the mix with scant regard for plausible story development or characterisation. There are more red herrings than in an average episode of Poirot.
Penn's determination to shove audience faces in the grimness of life (or death) is also questionable. He may feel that showing photographs of the corpses of butchered girls gives his work a daring, uncompromising quality, but "The Pledge" doesn't ultimately justify such explicitness. As enthralling as it sometimes is, there isn't any point to the relentless grimness. It just serves to show us that the world can be a bad place. Which we already know.