In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1991 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column) and six from 2001. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.

Jerry Black scratches his dry, dirty ankle. He’s stumble-drunk and oblivious to the dust that cakes his disheveled clothes and clogs the nostrils on a nose busted several times over, never allowed to heal in full before the next blow. Jerry babbles to himself in a tone that’s insistent and irate, the type of he’s-hearing-voices reverie you’d scurry past in real life. Film forces our gaze, though, on a wretched man who might project confidence in whatever it is he’s saying. Even in a brief glance, we recognize an internal, and likely eternal, uncertainty. It’s also obvious that it’s been ages since any human touch met the tender embrace Jerry pantomimes in the air.

Jerry’s empty-husk desolation is an immediately striking sight in the opening minute of 2001’s The Pledge, all the more so because it represented the first onscreen glimpse of the legendary Jack Nicholson since he won his third Academy Award (for 1997’s As Good As It Gets). Until Nicholson’s de facto retirement in 2010, this three-plus-year stretch was his longest absence in over a half-century of acting and Nicholson’s big return was … well, not quite like lovable misanthrope Melvin Udall. The story of a detective driven under by an ill-advised oath to find a little girl’s killer, The Pledge takes a ceaselessly nihilistic plummet into an abyss of occupational obsession, fetishized justice and thinning sanity, so grim that it almost morphs into an indictment of our collective expectations for the unquestionable triumph of good over evil in such procedurals. It’s one violent, hellish, dread-filled corner of anxiety and agony after another, akin to the cosmic fatalism and lightly supernatural ague of HBO’s True Detective. But the prologue is unmistakable: Things will not end well for Jerry Black, every hint of happiness but a mirage.

(Depicting Jerry’s destination so early slightly weakens the wallop of how he arrives there — as if Se7en opened with Mills bellowing in the middle of nowhere and Somerset frantically trying to hail his attention. But the following flashback cut to Jerry’s isolated ice-fishing hut and his deep pulls from a bottle of Glenfiddich suggests that solitude is perhaps Jerry’s best default mode.)

Adapted from a 1958 novella by Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Pledge was a long-time passion project for Nicholson and director Sean Penn. It was to be Penn’s reunion with Nicholson after their collaboration on 1995’s The Crossing Guard, but every major studio in Hollywood rejected it. Eventually, Franchise Pictures agreed to terms, cutting Penn and Nicholson’s usual commanding fees but giving Penn full control over casting and creative decisions. 

As outlined in this series’ entry on Battlefield Earth, Franchise was known for … creative accounting. The Pledge certainly suffered the repercussions of Battlefield’s bloated boondoggle, as Franchise cut funds that had been earmarked for additional photography. But it’s easily the best film Franchise ever funded, Penn’s second-best directorial effort behind 2007’s Into the Wild, and a truly underrated turn from Nicholson who displays the vintage versatility that made him an institution before he coasted into his last few performances on the silver-haired, smart-assed, preening horn-dog persona. Neither did Penn abuse that full control of casting, nepotism aside, with a stunning ensemble that includes 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 with at least one shining scene.

Jerry’s ice fishing sojourn is part of his brave-faced march toward perceived irrelevance, nearing retirement as a Reno Police Department homicide detective. Cinematographer Chris Menges observantly and intrusively photographs Jerry to suggest both carefully curated routines and the ways in which his world’s walls close in, squeezing life from him slowly, almost imperceptibly. Jerry’s entire existence seems like the result of a repetitive stress injury. The quick cuts and push-ins to indifferently Photoshopped versions of a young Nicholson through the years seem amateurish, but they emphasize the exclusions Jerry has made in his life to his own ends. (When it comes to marriage, he’s a “two-time loser.”)

Even Jerry’s tiki-themed retirement party feels foreign to him; Nicholson synthesizes feigned sincerity and suppressed rage into a line to those who have gathered to see him off: “You shouldn’t have. But you did. And it hits me deep.” The discovery of 7-year-old Ginny Larsen’s raped, mutilated and murdered body during the party feels like destiny to Jerry — one last wrong to right and, to more eventually destructive ends, a point to prove about his preeminent skills. At the crime scene, fellow detective Stan Krolek (Eckhart, in primo-blowhard mode) conveys frustration and endearment when he realizes no one left on the force can replicate Jerry’s eye for detail, least of all Stan.

It’s saying something that the department must rely on a guy as warm as an icebox to deliver this terrible news to the Larsens. But Jerry does so inside a chicken coop on the Larsen farm that seems to stretch on into infinity with animals awaiting slaughter. It’s a surreal and distinctly bleak illustration of where we all end up, often plucked before we’re quite ready to go and wide-eyed in disbelief that the end has come nigh and now. Inside the Larsen home, Jerry makes a promise to Ginny’s puritanical mother (Clarkson) that he’ll find the man who butchered her daughter — a wager in which he’ll give up his soul’s salvation in return should he renege.

The investigation quickly points to Toby Wadenah, a mentally handicapped Native American who has a history of violence. All guttural wails and warbly vocalizing, Toby isn’t given the most culturally sensitive portrayal by Del Toro (who won his own Oscar for Traffic weeks after The Pledge’s release). But Toby foreshadows the flimsiness and folly of Jerry’s vow. Toby seems to go through the motions in seeking the counsel of a god whom he knows has forsaken him while Stan elicits a distressingly intimate, insidious confession. What seems an open-and-shut case against Toby finds Jerry packing it in for a retirement-gift trip to Cabo San Lucas. But he’s nagged by his pledge and his skepticism that Toby was the guy. So Jerry sticks around to do more digging, which is where the exceptional ensemble takes hold.

As Ginny’s grandmother, Redgrave offers a heartrending exploration of her memories with the little girl, asking “how God could be so greedy” for such a bright, promising life. Costas Mandylor is an iron-pumping sporto sheriff’s deputy who gets off on graphic crime-scene photos, the sort of dolt living in blissful, idyllic ignorance of the blood-soaked devils stalking this world. 

Rourke plays Jim Olstad, the confrontational, shell-shocked father of a girl who went missing at Ginny’s age and is presumed dead. Jim can’t even comprehend what his daughter could look like after so many years gone. The real-world baggage Rourke brings with him as a tumultuous spirit carries some weight in his single scene, but Rourke reminds you of why he was once red-hot and would be again. An iconic 1980s bad boy, Rourke was trying to bounce back into acting after a professional boxing pivot went nowhere. But his reputation left students reluctant to cast him and his résumé relegated to straight-to-video duds. Penn’s insistence on casting him eventually led to larger roles, with Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Man on Fire and Sin City arriving in subsequent years before Rourke’s own Oscar-nominated turn in The Wrestler.

After Jerry becomes obsessed with Ginny’s drawing of a “wizard” whom he presumes was her killer, he visits a therapist (Mirren) whose seemingly innocuous exposition pivots into a sharp pluck at the scabs left by Jerry’s promise. All of this culminates in Jerry’s crazed presentation of barely connected evidence to Stan and his old boss, Captain Pollack (Shepard). Jerry’s fingers are nubby and bandaged, his meaty palm pounding the desk of Pollack, who puts his hand on Jerry’s shoulders as a cold comfort. Jerry recognizes the brushoff. He’s given it to others dozens of times.

What seems like Jerry’s eventual surrender to serenity in the rural Southwest instead becomes a mere pause ahead of a trap to lure the “wizard.” Not without indulgence of pulp traditions, the script by husband-and-wife Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski finds Jerry literally buying a bait shop and handing his own retirement dream over to its owner (Stanton). A Realtor’s remark that Jerry will “never be able to sell it for what you paid for it” begins to linger long, especially when Jerry seems to find some measure of domestic bliss with Lori (Robin Wright Penn), a bar waitress and single mom to a young girl named Chrissy (Pauline Roberts). 

These pastoral settings and circumstances run at purposefully unnerving counterpoint to the pressure mounting in Jerry’s mind. His imagination begins to run away with him, and carry off all his faculties in the process, when he meets Gary Jackson (Noonan) — who fits the bill of Ginny’s “wizard” and takes a liking to Chrissy, whom he tries to conscript for his weird little church on the edge of town. It’s not long before Jerry decides he has the perfect prey to dangle.

Akin to Rourke, Noonan trades on the terrifying intimidations of past roles, particularly serial killer Francis Dolarhyde in Manhunter or the Ripper in Last Action Hero. Noonan has said many of his scenes were cut; indeed, the ones with which Penn intended to explain more of Gary’s nature were among those on Franchise’s chopping block. But there’s enough of Noonan here to suggest the necessary menace, including a disturbing flash Jerry has of something truly horrible.

There’s a bit outside of the Jackson house, where Gary lives with his mother, in which Jerry quickly pulls back a wobbly piece of detritus in hopes of finding … what exactly? A rotting corpse? A blood-caked knife? A pile of little girls’ clothes? Jerry’s doggedness all ties back to that damn pledge, intertwined with his own inescapable urges to yield a nigh-Shakespearean outcome of ruin, misery and madness. The wire Nicholson walks between Jerry’s righteousness and mania is thin and high. Jerry is not a bad person. The lengths to which he’d go to find a killer aren’t entirely loathsome. And the film’s climax finds him wisely calling in a phalanx of fellow officers to assist. But we also know something has gone permanently askew in Jerry’s conscience, so much so that our gaze becomes askance. We pity and condemn Jerry, who envisions himself as an earthbound emissary of Hans Christian Anderson’s poetic “Angel” but is really just a man grasping at frayed ends of sanity. During a critical conversation with Lori, it’s not just that Jerry can’t meet her gaze or comprehend the weight of what she’s saying. He doesn’t even seem to realize she’s even standing in front of him, so full his surrender to his fixation on the pledge and the damnation that awaits his inability to honor it.

It seems only natural that a man who would so easily turn himself over as a toy to the universe would, in essence, become a ghost — someone who hardly seems real, spoken of in hushed and hurried tones if at all. People speak of Jerry in the past tense while he’s still there and even before The Pledge conclusively answers whether the “wizard” was a real threat or simply the product of both a child’s vivid imagination and Jerry’s crippling compulsion. The final scenes echo its first ones, an exhaustively tormented, unforgettable conclusion that renders The Pledge less a mystery of murder and more about the dangers of impulse and guilt.