Directed by Sean Penn, starring Jack Nicholson, Benicio Del Toro, Aaron Eckhart, Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, Robin Wright Penn, Vanessa Redgrave and Mickey Rourke.

Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) is a twice-divorced Nevada policeman psyching himself up for incipient retirement. On the night of his farewell function, the mutilated body of a young girl is discovered in the area. Preferring to lend his expertise at the scene of the crime than partake in the festivities in his honour, it falls to the self-effacing loner Black to deliver news of the dead girl's horrific fate to her parents. Haunted by the palpable anguish of the child's mother, and by the uncertainty that looms in his own life, Black makes a promise to find the monster that brutally raped and murdered the 8-year-old girl.

Determined to make good on his pledge, Black watches as a Native American man with severe learning difficulties confesses to the murder. Unconvinced of the veracity of the confession, and sceptical of the methods used to extract it, Black resolves to dig deeper, probe further and leave no stone unturned in his quest for the truth. Discovering that a young girl's murder eight years previously, and a second girl's disappearance, both in the surrounding areas, remain unsolved, he becomes further convinced that the killer is still at large. Angered and alienated by his ex-colleagues' unwillingness to accept that they may have got it wrong, Black befriends an abused waitress (Wright Penn) and her young daughter, providing them with a refuge from her violent ex-husband. But is Black providing genuine asylum for the troubled mother and her child, or is it simply a ruse to feed his insatiable obsession with establishing the truth?

Based on the novel of the same name by Friedrich Duerrenmatt, 'The Pledge' is the third directorial outing for Sean Penn, after 1991's 'The Indian Runner' and 1995's 'The Crossing Guard'. While each of those two earlier efforts had their moments, it's undoubtedly third time lucky for Penn, because 'The Pledge' is an excellent achievement. Taking an existential tale of loss and obsession, Penn has moulded a patient but deeply unsettling character study, leaving the viewer with more questions than answers. Is Black's determination to keep his promise based on his need for redemption? What is the true origin of his obsession? Penn's refusal to provide his audience with the comfort of cast-iron answers is one of the reasons why 'The Pledge' is such riveting fare. The other reason is Jack Nicholson.

Even on autopilot (on which he seems to have been for the last ten years), Nicholson has always been watchable. Here, he is quite simply superb. Admittedly, the character of Jerry Black is of the rare, rich variety, yet it's difficult to imagine any of his peers doing it better than Nicholson himself. Be it anger, sadness, guilt, desire or embarrassment, Jack gives a master class in the representation of emotion. Crucially, it's always subtle, credible and highly moving. Alfred Hitchcock once said that you should "always make the audience suffer as much as possible". As we witness Nicholson's Jerry Black delve deeper into the dark recesses of paranoid obsession, mental suffering is firmly in focus. Unusually, we are much better off because of it.

Tom Grealis