American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Sean Penn's "The Pledge" begins as a police story and spirals down into madness. It provides Jack Nicholson with one of his best roles in recent years, as a retired cop who makes a promise and tries to keep it. Like their previous film together as director and actor, "The Crossing Guard" (1995), it isn't a simple revenge story but shows the desire for justice running out of control and becoming dangerous. The story has the elements of a crime thriller (cops, suspects, victims, clues), but finally it's a character study, and in Detective Jerry Black, Nicholson creates a character we follow into the darkness of his compulsion.
As the film opens, Jerry is retiring as a cop--a good cop--in Reno, Nev. He's from an earlier generation; you can see that by the way he looks for ashtrays in the offices of colleagues who don't smoke. News comes that the mutilated body of a girl has been found. Jerry goes on the call (he wants to work out his last day), and eventually finds himself delivering the tragic news to the parents of the little girl.
This scene, staged by Penn on the turkey farm the couple operates, is amazing in its setting (Nicholson wading through thousands of turkey chicks) and its impact (holding a crucifix made by the murdered Ginny, he swears "by his soul's salvation" that he will find the killer). This is the pledge of the movie's title, and eventually it obsesses him.
It appears at first that the killer has been found. Benicio Del Toro plays an Indian, obviously retarded, who was seen running away from the murder scene. Clues seem to link his pickup truck with the crime. A knife-edged detective (Aaron Eckhart) gets a confession out of him, with Jerry squirming behind the one-way glass and saying the Indian "doesn't understand the question." Then the Indian grabs a gun and shoots himself. Guilty, and dead. Case closed.