Since taking on the role of director a decade ago, Sean Penn has proved himself more than capable of coaxing intense performances out of his casts and delivering powerful, personal slowburn dramas. With his third effort, The Pledge, Penn is hardly striking out into new cinematic territory, but while the result is similarly sombre to both The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard, it's also his most accomplished work yet.
This is largely due to some painfully incisive character observation from Jack Nicholson, whose portrayal of retired `tec Jerry Black's psychological dissolution is so carefully handled that it's almost imperceptible, tugging at the back of your brain rather than simply screaming in your face.
Nicholson may be one of Hollywood's finest, but for an actor who's based much of his career on showy roles, this is an achievement - and an Oscar-worthy one at that. Jerry is a man obsessed but, no doubt with Penn's guidance, Nicholson avoids resorting to histrionic tics, effectively conveying the idea that Jerry is utterly unaware of what's boiling in his subconscious as he hunts the possibly non-existent killer.
But it's not simply Nicholson's performance which makes The Pledge so compulsive. All too often, great acting is stymied by ropey plotting and unsatisfactory resolutions - this year's The Contender being a case in point. Thankfully, here the opposite is true: Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson's screenplay crackles with intelligence, subverting most of the conventions of a vigilante thriller. Indeed, the pace is so measured and the conclusion so bold that the film may even anger certain viewers. Yet that, surely, is better than reducing your story to the kind of predictable pulp we've come to expect from American cinema.