All right, Jack

Film - Philip Kerr welcomes a good performance from a pocket-sized ham

As the film director Luis Bunuel once admitted, being a film director is the most bourgeois profession in the world. Selfishly materialistic, conventionally respectable, unimaginative, many of them are not so much auteurs as poseurs, for whom the 1950s French journal Les Cahiers du cinema, which has helped directors to arrogate all creative power in the film-making process to themselves, might stand as some kind of manifesto - always supposing that they had even heard of it.

I have always thought that one of the quickest ways to look like a complete wanker is to hang an Arri viewfinder around your neck - it's the film-maker's medallion - and to walk up and down making little square frames in the air with your fingers and thumbs. In Last Tango in Paris, the character of Tom, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, is a wonderful send-up by Bernardo Bertolucci of his own profession, and of Godard in particular.

Yet, with so many bad directors around, it's not just the directors who are directing films. These days, it seems that any fool actor or actress can direct a movie, and probably will. All it takes to look as if you know what you're doing is a decent script and a good cinematographer, aka director of photography. For my money, the second of these (the DP) is usually the most important creative force on a film set; and there are numerous cases in which the framing, the camera movement, the lighting - that is, the whole visual dimension of a film - are created entirely by the DP, while the director concentrates on the actors and their performances.

It is no accident that most directors tend to use the same DPs repeatedly. DPs are the ones who understand all that stuff about the geometry of blocking, colour and shadow, physiognomy (in short, all the nuances of a screenplay that might be affected by photographic choices, and the sort of thing that the man in the street associates with being a film director). DPs are to bad directors what body doubles are to lardy actresses and bandy-legged actors - they help them to look good.

One of the best DPs in the world is an Englishman, Chris Menges. He has won two Academy Awards for his work on The Mission and The Killing Fields, but probably only a few people have heard of him. And such is our devotion to the absurd cult of the director that we probably won't hear much of Menges even if, as he richly deserves to, he wins a third Oscar for his cinematography on The Pledge. It is one of the most beautifully shot films I have seen in a long time.

Based on a novel by the Brecht-influenced Swiss dramatist Friedrich Durrenmatt, The Pledge is directed by Sean Penn and features not so much a galaxy of stars as a Caramac, given that many of them - Vanessa Redgrave, Sam Shepard, Helen Mirren, Mickey Rourke and Harry Dean Stanton - are no longer in such demand. If we're really being honest here, Jack Nicholson, who plays the lead, is also well past his sell-by date, and there is nothing more nauseating to behold than the annual Oscar-night toadying to this pocket-sized ham. Nicholson was lousy in the execrable As Good as it Gets, for which he won an undeserved Oscar; lousier still in The Evening Star; and lousiest of all in Mars Attacks. The Pledge, however, contains Nicholson's best acting in a long time - certainly since Batman, and perhaps even since Prizzi's Honor.

Here, he plays a Nevada homicide cop, Jerry Black, who cuts short his own retirement party when an eight-year-old girl is found brutally murdered in the snow (don't see this film if you have a small daughter). Jerry agrees to tell the parents the bad news - a beautifully shot scene on a turkey farm, where even the birds look disturbed by what he has to say. The dead child's grieving mother (Patricia Clarkson) coerces Jerry into swearing on the hope of his soul's salvation that he will find her daughter's murderer, whatever it takes. Jerry swears. Pretty soon, he forms the impression that his colleagues have arrested the wrong man, a Native American named Toby (Benicio del Toro); and Jerry's retirement is swiftly taken up with an obsessive search to find the real culprit. It's an obsession that prompts him to buy a gas station in the centre of an area defined by other, similar, unsolved killings, which the police seem too stupid to have noticed. (This part works better in the novel, set in 1950s Switzerland, with its linguistically separate cantons.) A fisherman by hobby, Jerry meets a single mother with a young daughter, sets up home with them, and decides to use the little girl as bait.

"A story," said Durrenmatt, "is thought through to its end when it has taken its worst possible turn. But the worst possible turn is not foreseeable. It comes about through chance . . . The more methodically men proceed, the more drastically chance affects them."

Which is exactly what happens here. It all makes for an atypical Hollywood film, and one that Europeans, who have a keen eye for the complexity of human motives, are likely to enjoy more than Americans. But what's that? Chance as the ultimate arbiter? Surely not. That's the director's job.

The Pledge (15) is on limited release from 12 October