Jack Nicholson looks different in “The Pledge.” He subdues his Hollywood persona, grows a mustache, and shows his aging mug. It’s uncommon to see him looking so common. Then again, “The Pledge” is not a common movie.

Nicholson plays Detective Jerry Black, who, in an early scene, uncovers his own retirement party, secretly planned by colleagues and friends. He is send off with a wonderful parting gift: a fishing trip in Baja. The happy celebration however is interrupted at the arrival of a report. Eight year old Ginny Larsen, a pretty girl with blue eyes and blond hair, is found murdered among snowy woods. Jerry decides to help out on the case, opting to catch one last predator, before retiring to catching fish.

The crime scene is awful to look at. The dead youngster was sexually molested and brutally slayed. No one wants to do the thankless job of informing the parents. Jerry steps up and breaks the bad news. Ginny’s grief-stricken mother (Patricia Clarkson) asks the detective if he’ll swear on his “own soul’s salvation” that he’ll find the killer.

“Yes,” Jerry responds sincerely. “Yes, on my own soul’s salvation.” It’s the defining pledge that will resound until the movie ends.

The prime suspect is a soft-mumbling man (Benicio Del Toro), who was seen running away from the scene. The police nab him and even acquire a coughed-up confession. Jerry remains unconvinced though. There are many blanks to fill in. The old gumshoe then goes to school and interviews the victim’s best friend. She cites Ginny’s recent drawing, which depicts a “giant” bestowing “porcupines.” Jerry thinks the sketch is inspired by real events, not by a child’s imagination. The “giant,” which could be any towering adult, certainly didn’t resemble the long-haired and confessing criminal. The retiree-to-be relays this information, but his fellow detectives judge the theory untenable. Defeated, Jerry sighs and retires, but is unable to shake the case off his mind. He is a man of his word after all. He promised by his own soul’s salvation.

Speaking of promises, “The Pledge” is a movie that offers none. It’s very independent-minded; it neither seeks audience approval nor censure. Take it or leave it. It really depends on your take on its unusual plot direction, which I found to be worrisome and thrilling at the same time.

For a mystery movie, it’s strange that the number of suspects actually grows. Data are collected, though they never materialize as solid evidence. The story, therefore, is mostly fueled by gut instinct. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether Jerry’s intuition is either spot-on or way-off. (It’s peculiar to choose really, since it is so standard for the hero to be always right.)

The plot wants to you to believe Jerry’s one crazy away from a cuckoo’s nest. His nagging investment on the case can be seen as an unhealthy obsession. On the other hand, it could also be interpreted as a heroic crusade for justice, which is how Jack Nicholson portrays the character.

And he’s riveting and credible in the role. It’s a rare understated performance, where he mostly reveals his character’s mindset through actions. Aiding Nicholson is a cast of first-rate talents: Aaron Eckhart, Benicio Del Toro, Sam Shepard, Robin Wright Penn, Patricia Clarkson, Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, Mickey Rourke, and Vanessa Redgrave. Each actor’s screen time is small, but they all know how to make indelible turns. I particularly had goose bumps when I saw Tom Noonan, who played the infamous serial killer in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter.”

Of course, it comes as no surprise that the film contains fine acting. The director, after all, is Sean Penn, the Oscar-winning actor. As a filmmaker, Penn is good in conveying themes and balancing contrasts. While he films with moody and bleak tones, “The Pledge” levitates with unworldly talks of devils, angels, and souls. Furthermore, when fairy tales are told, they surface in the movie’s dark-hearted parts. This is an unsettling and disturbing film, though, to Penn’s credit, it is never sensationalized. For the most of the part, “The Pledge” is effectively low-key until its gasp-inducing ending begins. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether it’s a great or awful conclusion. It’s peculiar to choose really, since it is so standard for the movies end happily.

Grade: A-

Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Aaron Eckhart, Benicio Del Toro, Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, Vanessa Redgrave, Pauline Roberts
Based on the novel by
Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Screenplay by
Jerzy Kromolowski
Mary Olson-Kromolowski
Directed by
Sean Penn
Rated R