Retired police detective Jerry Black (Nicholson) is seen mumbling to himself, apparently drunk, sitting on a bench outside a disused gas station. The scene then shifts to events in the recent past. The Department has thrown him a retirement party, and the police captain gives Jerry a fishing trip in Mexico as a gift. The party is interrupted by the discovery of a murdered child, Ginny. Jerry decides to go with another detective, Stan Krolak (Eckhart), to the scene of the crime.
Jerry delivers the bad news to the child's parents, and the mother makes Jerry swear on a cross that he will find the killer. A suspect is found the next day. Stan goes in to interview the suspect, Toby Jay Wadenah (del Toro), a Native American man with mental retardation. During the interview, the man eventually confesses but steals a gun from one of the deputies and commits suicide. To the other detectives, the case is over, but Jerry does not think that Wadenah was the killer. Jerry is adamant about his pledge to find the killer, and does not go on the fishing trip. Instead, he visits the victim's grandmother, who tells him of the many stories that Ginny told. A later visit to one of her friends reveals that Ginny had a friend she called "The Giant". Jerry sees a picture Ginny drew of "The Giant", but it does not resemble Wadenah, and includes a black station wagon. He takes the drawing with him.
Jerry goes to Stan and asks him to reopen the case. Stan refuses but gets Jerry more information about similar cases in the area. Jerry's investigations reveal three unsolved and similar cases that Wadenah could not have committed. Jerry presents his research and Ginny's drawing to Captain Pollack (Shepard) and Stan, who are doubtful.
While fishing, Jerry notices a gas station that is located near the center of the similar cases. After buying the gas station, Jerry moves into the house behind it, meets local bartender Lori (Wright Penn), and slowly becomes a father figure to her daughter Chrissy.
Soon, Chrissy becomes friends with a local pastor, Gary Jackson (Tom Noonan). Jerry is uncomfortable about this and begins to think Jackson is the killer. Chrissy is shown meeting a man driving a black car with a toy hedgehog hanging on the rear mirror, hedgehogs being another aspect of Ginny's drawing that Jerry believes to be a clue. Chrissy explains to Jerry that she met a wizard who gave her hedgehog candies and told her not to tell her parents they met. She figured it was OK to tell Jerry, since he is not her father. Jerry realizes this is the killer and, using Chrissy as bait, stages an operation, with Stan's help, to catch him.
A car is shown driving with a toy hedgehog hanging from the rear-view mirror. The woman who owned the chocolate shop is shown searching for "Oliver", implying that he is the killer. After hours of waiting, Stan and the other police leave. They tell Lori what happened, and she confronts Jerry angrily about putting her daughter in danger. The car that was shown approaching is seen destroyed in a fiery collision with a freight truck.
In the final scene, reprising the first, Jerry sits on a bench in front of the ruined gas station, apparently drunk, mumbling to himself that the killer is still out there.Jack Nicholson as Jerry Black
Patricia Clarkson as Margaret Larsen
Benicio del Toro as Toby Jay Wadenah
Aaron Eckhart as Stan Krolak
Helen Mirren as Doctor
Tom Noonan as Gary Jackson
Robin Wright Penn as Lori
Vanessa Redgrave as Annalise Hansen
Mickey Rourke as Jim Olstad
Sam Shepard as Eric Pollack
Harry Dean Stanton as Floyd Cage
Dale Dickey as Strom
Costas Mandylor as Monash Deputy
Michael O'Keefe as Duane Larsen
Lois Smith as Helen Jackson
Brittany Tiplady as Becky Fiske
Eileen Ryan as Jean
The film was shot mainly on location in the British Columbia interior. While the opening scenes were filmed in Reno, Nevada, the rest of the film was shot in Keremeos, Princeton, Hedley, Merritt and Lytton, all in British Columbia.
The Pledge did not perform well at the box office. The film opened in 1,275 theaters and grossed $5,765,347, with an average of $4,521 per theater and ranking #11 at the box office. The film ultimately earned $19,733,089 domestically and $9,686,202 internationally for a total of $29,419,291, below its $35 million production budget.
The Pledge received mainly positive reviews from critics. The film has a "certified fresh" score of 78% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 121 reviews with an average rating of 6.8 out of 10. The critical consensus states "Though its subject matter is grim and may make viewers queasy, The Pledge features an excellent, subtle performance by Jack Nicholson." The film also has a score of 71 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 33 critics indicating "Generally favorable reviews."
James Berardinelli gave The Pledge three stars, calling it "clever in the way that it gradually reveals things, but never gives us too much information at one time." Roger Ebert gave the film four stars out of four and later added it to his "Great Movies" list, writing: "The last third of the movie is where most police stories go on autopilot, with obligatory chases, stalkings and confrontations. That's when The Pledge grows most compelling. Penn and Nicholson take risks with the material and elevate the movie to another, unanticipated, haunting level."Sean Penn – Palme d'Or at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival – NOMINATED
Grand Prix of the Belgian Syndicate of Cinema Critics – NOMINATED
2002 for the Danish Bodil – NOMINATED
Benicio Del Toro – 2002 ALMA Award – NOMINATED
Brittany Tiplady – 2002 Young Artist Award – NOMINATED
Hans Zimmer – 2001 World Soundtrack Award – NOMINATED