When Dr Christine Blasey Ford sent Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court on allegations of sexual misconduct and assault from back in their college days, a fresh discussion was raised about the state of America’s college fraternities and the sort of environments and entitlement that seem to regularly breed such behaviour. While not centrally dealing with issues of assault against women on college campus’, Daniel Robbins’ second feature Pledge does take to extremes the toxic masculinity that allows such raucous male bravado to develop in a dark and chilling take on hazing rituals.
With a band of lead characters pulled straight out of Superbad, Pledge follows nerdy ‘losers’ David (Zack Weiner), Justin (Zachery Byrd) and Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello) as they scout their new college campus during Rush Week to try to find a fraternity that will take them on. With little success at all the major hotspots, the boys are then approached by Rachel, a way-out-of-your-league sorority girl who invites them to an exclusive party later that night.
Sheltered by a wooded area and a bit off the beaten track, the boys approach a large frat house and are greeted warmly by sharply-dressed residents Max (Aaron Dalla Villa) and Ricky (Cameron Cowperthwaite); exactly the sort of trust fund assholes you’d come to expect from any frat movie. David and Co. can hardly believe they’ve been invited to a party that seems so exclusive, a slew of slow-mo party shots of beautiful women, flowing drinks and loose morals ensues and it seems that the guys may have just had the single greatest experience of their lives thus far. Max and Ricky seemed impressed by the boys, and invite them back the next evening to begin pledging for their mysterious ‘social group’ The Krypteia.
Now, any group that has the word ‘Krypt’ in it should probably raise some concerns, and those concerns are met when the boys are locked within the Krypteia house with their phones taken away and are made to have the group’s emblem branded on their body. As an audience, its horrifying but kind of believable, the guys on Jackass did it once so who’s to say some stupid frat wouldn’t try the same stunt? This level of restraint in the increasingly more disturbing hazing rituals the boys are put through is simply so terrifyingly good because it exudes a believability that some of these ‘challenges’ are probably taken from real life cases, and wouldn’t be hard to find in a nice Buzzfeed compilation article titled ’20 most horrifying real life Hazing rituals’. Director Daniel Robbins never fully takes the levels of torture and gore to the places most horror filmmakers would want to venture, he favours the suspenseful nature of the slow-burn.
Pledge’s most shudder-inducing themes surprisingly aren’t that of its physical violence but of the toxic masculinity seeping through the very fibres of The Krypteia’s perfectly tailored suits. During one of the rituals a Krypteia member says “We’re looking for your breaking point, because great men don’t have one.” This bravado and endorsement of the macho man is certainly a current topic and Pledge creates a heightened sense of the environments that breed the Kavanaughs, Trumps and Weinsteins of this world by allowing them the space to dehumanise and abuse those around them, echoed again by another Krypteia member later in the film: “It’s not about hurting these people, it’s about learning to not see these people as people at all.”
The repulsive nature of Max, Ricky and their cohorts and their façade between playing caring brothers in arms and torturous maniacs leaves for a satisfying hatred to bubble under the surface as you wait for their comeuppance. In a twisted finale, Pledge begs its characters to make the choice between morals or power, in a distressing nod to social gatekeepers and dated traditions.
With just enough violence to appal but never sensationalise, Pledge’s stomach churning take on hazing rituals and the powerful men moving through the shadows is a strong starting point for another fine year of social horror.
Pledge opens in theatres and VOD on January 11th.
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of Screen Queens. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her lifesource is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends way too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here