By Isaac Feldberg
Pledge is Daniel Robbins’ third film, and his first really good one.
Pledge, directed by Daniel Robbins. Available on VOD.
Sure, its marketing outwardly begs the comparison — particularly that baleful poster, three young men framed sacramentally beneath a neon slasher-font title — but Pledge (just out from IFC Midnight) nonetheless effectively manages to do for fraternities what 2015’s Green Room did for neo-Nazis and the underground punk scene. (Not to say all three of those subcultures weren’t terrifying to some degree beforehand.)
You have to wonder whether director Daniel Robbins and scribe Zack Weiner know Green Room’s Jeremy Saulnier personally (all are based in New York and could easily be going to the same midnight movies), or if they’re just enamored of his blunt-force style. It could easily be the latter. Saulnier probably makes the darkest of dark comedies out there, blood-slicked or grinning from the gallows. In a post-Tarantino age, he’s restored some psychological depth to on-screen violence, made it gross again, even whilst putting murder weapons in the hands of archetypally screwball characters (Brooklyn posers in Murder Party, a shy loner in Blue Ruin, wimpy punk-rockers in Green Room). He’s an armchair Sam Peckinpah; his movies reflect a genuine love of stylish ‘70s and ‘80s bloodshed but, like Peckinpah, he wonders whether we are prepared to stomach savagery (and its moral implications) without any neat aesthetic trappings.
Pledge is Robbins’ third film, and his first really good one (DIY werewolf movie Uncaged didn’t show its seams so much as it was all seams). It is proof that Saulnier’s movies are obviously pushing at least a few talented young filmmakers in the right direction. Pledge earns a place in the same conversation as most of Saulnier’s efforts (minus Hold the Dark, which is on a whole other level); they are comparably precise, pared-to-the-bone thrillers, fascinated by how cornered-animal desperation (of a man in a trap) can explode into appalling violence.
The logline: three dweeby freshmen rush a highly exclusive fraternity, only to face hazing rituals more twisted and torturous than they could have imagined. That setup — the simplest ingredient in Weiner’s bear-trap script — generates a pretty compelling genre riff, something like Goat meets Hostel. The film splits its time between skewering the ideological hypocrisies of degrading oneself for masculine acceptance and straight-up skewering of the more unfortunate characters in its Animal House of Horrors.
Justin (Zachery Byrd), David (Weiner, pulling double duty), and Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello) make for a convincing lead trio of sweaty freshmen, impressionable enough to fall directly into whatever trap is set for them, so long as the promise of popularity glimmers somewhere deep within it. First, there’s a fantastic cold open that teases the brutality ahead (scored, as a nod to John Carpenter, with a synth track too many will associate with Stranger Things). We meet the three protagonists roaming a college campus, hopeful to rush a frat and make their MTV-assisted college reveries a booze-soaked reality.
Nobody’s interested in the guys for one reason or another. Justin’s schlubby and unenthused, David’s unctuous to the point of groveling, and Ethan’s just a tad too awkward. But eventually they’re approached by a comely young woman, who invites them to an off-campus event at a stately yet isolated fraternity house. Neon-lit warning signs abound: the uniform creepiness of the square-jawed, unusually accommodating brothers; barred windows; a lengthy dirt road separating the house from the outside world. But the trio are too excited to bask in a bastion of collegiate achievement, both prurient and professional, to notice.
Lambdas to the slaughter though they may be, Justin, David, and Ethan gradually realize this isn’t a normal frat, or possibly even one at all. The hazing rituals they’re subjected to are cruel and degrading. They expected embarrassment and pain, but the uber-sadism of their challenges (choosing where on their bodies to be branded, stomaching a grotesque “rat soup”) turns into a matter of survival. “Social club” chair Max (Aaron Dalla Villa) is outwardly psychotic, but even more worrying are cronies Ricky (Cameron Cowperthwaite, hypnotic in how he shifts between boisterous enthusiasm and seething enmity) and Bret (Jesse Pimentel), who are models for Stanford prison experiment wardens.
It all builds to a gory freak-out, the kind of crunchily terrifying escalation any horror fan knows is coming. But credit Robbins and Weiner for innovating along the way. They lay some intriguing narrative decoys across the tracks (muscle-bound statues intercut as classical models of masculinity looming over this rite of passage; dark insinuations there’s much at stake for the trio’s natty tormenters) that make this particularly hellish Hell Weekend a very satisfyingly kinetic ride.
As Pledge enters its final stretch, enlisting a particularly skin-crawling torture method you’ll recognize from either medieval history or 2 Fast 2 Furious (no judgement), you sense its writer and director are leaving satire behind, caught up in the Greek Guignol of it all. It’s disappointing that female characters, who enter the plot at pivotal moments, end up (literally) yanked off-screen. They never become more than fetish objects or, more aptly, honey traps. Saulnier, by comparison, takes care to write exceptionally dynamic roles for his actresses.
Nevertheless, the filmmakers find their way back in time to provide a humdinger of a third-act twist. They attempt to re-contextualize earlier acts of macho savagery, placing them in a broader, albeit sillier sense. And they almost pull this off because of Robbins’ brisk pacing as well as the committed performances he draws out of his young actors. Keep a particular eye out for Botello, who brings an interiority to his besieged initiate that grounds the character’s torment, however cartoonish, in believable pain.
Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston. Though often preoccupied by his on-going quest to prove that Baby Driver is a Drive prequel, he always finds time to appreciate the finer things in life, like Liam Neeson.