'Pledge' Review: A Lean, Mean Fraternity Murder Convenes In Daniel Robbins' Thriller [Fantasia Film Festival]

As a college attendee who never participated in Greek life myself, fraternal thrillers are always something of an outside-looking-in affair. My behind-closed-doors knowledge comes only from friends who recall their "elephant walks" or 24-hour drinking binges, always uttered with an air of unbelievableness. That's what makes this subgenre so difficult. Can a movie sell sorority babes and fraternity bros getting away with literal murder? Yes, because Daniel Robbins' film Pledge does. A cleanly shot, aggressively-spanked story of hazing torture outside collegiate regulation that makes you beg for each and every round of punishment.

As eager freshman explore prospective Greek households during rush week, three "nerdy" newbies struggle to find their place amidst tank-top dudes and twerking day-drinkers. David (Zack Weiner), Justin (Zachery Bird) and Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello) face a choice – drink beers and play XBOX alone for the next four years or get accepted into one of many brotherhoods. Sounds simple, but these guys aren't exactly smoother operators. After being asked to leave Beta's premises – for being "too weird" – an astoundingly attractive coed invites the trio off-campus to a special fraternity. Despite numerous red flags (chain-locked gate, lengthy dirt road, no neighboring houses), the boys find themselves pledging a mysterious social club where winners are made – if they can survive 48 hours of hell.

Enter Maxwell Peterson III (Aaron Dalla Villa), the "social club" chair who welcomes each pledge. He's suited up for a country club ceremony, fluent in university partying and absolutely up to no good (American Psycho Jr., if you will). Night one is an all-out rager "packed" with only five pledges and beautiful, high-class ladies who cater to their guests' every need. Night two begins with branding, moves to a most nauseating dinner and night three ends with chaotic bloodshed. This is all after an introductory flashback scene that predates proceedings by four years, where a runaway pledge is clocked with a baseball bat and dragged through cornfield stalks.

Robbins doesn't need to play coy with Pledge. We all know the film's three "lovable" losers will be tortured far worse than neverending beer bongs and sleep deprivation. Early hazes are stereotypical razzing and putting dorks into far-away corners, but tension peaks the minute Max introduces himself. Why is such a dapper, upstanding gentleman inviting the outcasts of campus into a "club" where mere children become titans of industry? Nevertheless built on ancient Roman beliefs of "real men" not submitting to breaking points because, in order to succeed, one must *never* break.

Pledge Movie Review

Thus incites a tragic and terrible tale of toxic masculinity, where the pledgees may not be who we expect. Max's cohorts – Ricky (Cameron Cowperthwaite) and Bret (Jesse Pimentel) – seem to be enjoying the sadism a bit too much. David and company are often degraded past rational human barriers, but no social club member seems to view their victims as people. That explains the steel bars over windows, roadkill slurry and ceremonial daggers, all while prototypical frat bros salivate and froth while spewing verbile bile towards each captor. Physically aching to witness pain, screaming in the name of bloody murder.

As you can expect, David's fix-your-computer look makes him an easy target, along with Justin's husky build and Ethan's skittishness. Chosen because of weakness, forced to fight back against their alpha captors. Further tension mounts when Max's clan unsheathes their true intentions, as they funnel rats into a Fight Club reminiscent basement where ungodly acts are committed. Random poor souls find themselves caught in the mix (women forced into skimpy stripper nurse outfits, two additional pledge candidates), but this is our leading dweebs' crucible to conquer. Always overmatched, but like a rodent trapped under life-threatening circumstances, they're forced to claw their way out. If, of course, they muster the gumption.

Actor Zach Weiner doubles as the film's scribe, who very sharply whittles terror down to a streamlined spear design. Little time is wasted. Once "Hell Weekend" commences, danger swirls like a cyclone of elitist madness. As the nights press on, Grecian statue artwork depicting feats of strength call back to times when gladiators proved their might by showing nothing but physical dominance. Robbins and Weiner work together in modeling their age-old conspiracy beyond "Lizard Illuminati" believers, warping frat mentalities into a sick showing of "skills" to honor old ranks. Barbaric practices committed in modern-day light, wholly worth the massive liberties still taken by on-campus murder club participants.

"Masculinity" as a weapon, downfall and twisted take on horror. What relevance.

Pledge stakes its genre claim on fruitless anger, merciless abuse and satirical wit concerning what we're willing to do for popularity. Daniel Robbins does plenty with what some will consider a bare-bones take, evoking fear from a disgusting, morally problematic core. We've all heard the fraternity warnings and seen what happens when senior drill sergeants take things a step too far. This is twelve steps past that mark, where surviving students would need therapy. Sometimes a bit generic when it comes to verbal berating, maybe not the most believable survival story at times, but for my money, a lean-mean junior feature from Mr. Robbins that easily makes the grade./Film Rating: 7 out of 10