Pledging a fraternity can be a potential nightmare for young college students, as recent films such as Goat and Burning Sands have captured in harrowingly realistic detail. That tradition can be so terrifying and traumatizing, in fact, that it can border on outright horror—which is precisely where Pledge comes in.
The third feature from director Daniel Robbins and writer Zack Weiner, who previously collaborated on The Convenient Job and Uncaged, Pledge exploits higher education initiation rituals for gruesome, suspenseful thrills, all via the story of three outcasts whose quest for acceptance leads them into unholy trouble. At 77 minutes, it’s a fleet, ferocious and razor-sharp affair, with any traces of pedantry sliced away like so much unwanted fat. In its depiction of one night of hellish unpleasantness, it uses genre to get at ugly truths about its chosen subject matter, which here is cast as a trap that purports to bond individuals through shared humiliation, preys upon the weak, and dangles sex, wealth, power and camaraderie like poisoned carrots on a stick.
It takes nanoseconds to recognize that Pledge’s protagonists are patsies in waiting. David (screenwriter Weiner) is the nerdy leader of the group, a motormouth whose non-stop blathering is an awkward means of projecting (phony) confidence. Overweight Justin (Zachery Byrd) and nervous Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello) would just as soon stay home and play videogames than continue suffering embarrassment at the rush parties to which David drags them, given that they always result in rejection. After multiple failures to secure bids at their university’s fraternity houses, and then missing a big day-drinking bash, they’re ready to tuck their tails between their legs and head back to their dorm when they’re approached, seemingly out of the blue, by beautiful Rachel (Erica Boozer), who invites them to a party that evening. No matter that the offer seems implausible (to say the least), they readily agree.
Arriving at this shindig, the trio can barely believe their eyes: at the end of a long grass driveway (cordoned off by a padlocked gate), they discover an ivy-covered brick mansion illuminated by candles and filled with beautiful women. Their hosts are diminutive Max (Aaron Dalla Villa), cheery Ricky (Cameron Cowperthwaite) and aggressive Bret (Jesse Pimentel), three preppies in jackets and khakis who perfectly look the upper-crust part.
Welcomed into this posh sanctum, where body shots out of women’s cleavage and threesomes on the dance floor are theirs for the taking, David, Ethan and Justin—along with two other guests, Sam (Jean-Louis Droulers) and Ben (Joe Gallagher)—quickly become euphoric. And when, after waking the next morning in the house, they’re invited to return the following night to pledge this “social club,” they assume they’ve hit the jackpot.
No one will be surprised to learn that they haven’t. Pledge, however, isn’t interested in stunning audiences with the revelation that Max and his cronies are up to no good—a prologue in which a boy sprints through the woods with a bloody gut wound foreshadows what’s in store for these characters. Rather, its main goal is to create a sense of dawning terror from the lengths to which these wealthy kids plan to push their charges, and the amount of misery those younger teens are willing to endure for the reward of being inducted into these hallowed halls. Taking advantage of their position to satisfy their own deviant appetites, the “elite” prove to be psychopaths who target lowly plebeians who desperately covet what they have—a relationship that director Robbins and writer Weiner wield to underscore the sickness of the entire pledging process.
In David, Justin and Ethan’s ensuing ordeal, which goes from worse to much worse in no time at all, Pledge highlights the insanity of tolerating degradation as an initiate rite, as if communal suffering breeds genuine closeness (or “brotherhood”) with strangers. At the same time, the film knows that many believe that idea to be true, and uses that fact to its horrific benefit—since, after all, the reason David and company stay so long in this torture chamber is because, as Ben says, “It’s just hazing,” and David chimes in, “Yeah, it’s what frats do.” There’s an obvious, immense risk to putting your safety in the hands of random classmates in the hope that it’ll lead to social recognition and, through adult-life alumni connections, future successful opportunities. Yet as this tale illustrates, brutal hazing is such a commonly practiced and tolerated facet of collegiate life that pledging underclassmen will let their Greek brethren get away with doing just about anything to them.
Well, to a point, at least, as Pledge eventually thrusts David, Ethan and Justin into a scenario that even the frat faithful would want to escape. With an intense grisliness that’s far removed from the PG-13 nonsense of something like The Skulls, Robbins and Weiner mercilessly turn the screws on these students, the highlight of which is a scene involving a naked torso, a famished rat, and an increasingly hot cooking pot that, besides stimulating one’s gag reflex, gets at the scratching-and-clawing hunger driving this entire ordeal forward. Robbins stages this madness with effectively unnerving visuals that leave just enough to the imagination, and he elicits some strong performances from his entire cast, be it his petrified victims or his demented villains. Villa is particularly memorable as the diminutive Max, a pint-sized tyrant convinced that the keys to the Promised Land can only be attained through blood, sweat, tears and cattle branding.
Repeated cutaways to paintings of ancient Greek statues convey how Max, Ricky and Bret think they’re carrying on an honorable mythic tradition. Robbins and Weiner’s film, though, is too concise to expend energy hectoring its audience. Rather, it lets its carnage speak for itself, and by the finale, it speaks loudly, and disgustingly. Best of all, a late twist does a superb job of portraying the irrefutable seductiveness of pledging, no matter the cost. After all, Pledge teases with a demented twinkle in its eye, if fame, fortune and an endless supply of lovely females were right at your fingerprints, what wouldn’t you do to make your dreams come true?