Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000 to 2009.

A 2001 whodunit about a detective driven under by an ill-advised oath, Sean Penn’s The Pledge carved out a violent, hellish, dread-filled corner of anxiety and agony in America’s southwest.

It also represented a waning opportunity to see the real Jack Nicholson — here showcasing the vintage versatility that made him an institution, not just his silver-haired, smart-assed, preening horn-dog persona.

Not even a “surprise” retirement party escapes Jerry Black, an investigator brave-facing his march toward irrelevance. (Nicholson synthesizes feigned sincerity and suppressed rage into the line, “You shouldn’t have, but you did, and it hits me deep.”)

A girl’s mutilated corpse discovered during the party feels like destiny to Jerry — one last wrong to right and, more destructively, a point to prove. Jerry swears on his soul’s salvation to the victim’s puritanical mother that he’ll find the killer — a vow that will lead only to misery and madness.

Jerry’s crackup isn’t instantly consumptive, as second-act serenity seems like more than a postcard distraction. But Penn’s canny camerawork ominously plays up damnation overtones, and Jerry reopens his investigation, envisioning himself as an earthbound emissary of Hans Christian Andersen’s poetic “Angel.”

Sanctity extends to the stunning cast. Patricia Clarkson, Benicio Del Toro, Aaron Eckhart, Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, Robin Wright Penn, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, Sam Shepard and Harry Dean Stanton all have at least one shining scene.

By its exhaustively tormented conclusion, The Pledge felt like a mystery less about murder and more about the inexplicable dangers of impulse and guilt.