Jerry is a Nevada homicide detective whose life is his job. On the day of his retirement a particularly grisly case--an eight-year-old girl has been sexually abused and murdered--arises. He devotes the last six hours of his career to investigating it. He also makes a pledge to the slain girl's mother that he will find the murderer.
His former colleagues, however, nab a handy dull-witted fall guy (strikingly played by Benicio Del Toro), and when he commits suicide, they gratefully close the case. Jerry doesn't. There are similar, unsolved crimes in the area, some of them dating back years, and he thinks there will be more. He buys a gas station-convenience store in a fishing village near the center of the various crime scenes, adopts the pose of a benignly retired guy and awaits developments. He also takes up with Lori (Robin Wright Penn), a battered but brave waitress who happens to have a daughter matching the age and physical description of the victims.
It's a nice, creepy situation, derived from a novel by Friedrich Durrenmatt and visualized by the director, Sean Penn. But the screenwriters, Jerzy and Mary Olson-Kromolowski, permit Jerry his ordinariness. He really loves Lori. And he is a marvelous surrogate father to her child. It is possible to imagine his pledge, his obsession, being drowned in domesticity. If only those suspicious cars didn't keep pulling up to his pumps.
Nicholson is awfully good at suggesting inner tension without overplaying it. He's a great watcher at the crossroads. But then everyone in the cast (which includes Vanessa Redgrave and Helen Mirren) is good at playing normality while implying darker thoughts moving beneath the surface.
There comes a time, though, when Jerry has to choose between his newfound identity as a happy family man and his older, more firmly established one as a cop who cannot abandon a case. It would be unfair to describe the jeopardy he embraces--except to say that he risks much and loses all as the result of his choice. It is not unfair to observe that for a man as rational and self-aware as he clearly is, the unhinging outcome is perhaps too much of a surprise to him and not entirely persuasive to us. That said, The Pledge is still an original and morally alert detective story. Whatever its defects, it reminds us, in our seemingly endless season of gimcrack thrillers, that tense, well-played realism can invigorate our commitment to fictional lives, involve us in the dilemmas of everyday existence as they steal up on people and catch them unaware.