Eric’s Review: Pledge (2018)

ATMOSfx! Woo!

★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Pledge is a pressure cooker. Full Stop.

Directed by Daniel Robbins

I saw the trailer for this back at the beginning of the year. This film brought out the Animal House meets Hostel vibes. And it delivers on both counts. It’s not as overtly funny as Animal House, but it has those cringe-worthy and awkwardly amusing moments. It’s not as gory as Hostel, but it gives you the same libido trap and the throttle intensity of torture.

The story is a time-honored trope. Three freshman nerds (read: LOSERS), the sensitive Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello), self-conscious heavyweight Justin (Zachery Byrd), and socially inept David (Zack Weiner) all desperately want to fit into the college scene. But, they clearly do not fit the mold of the Fraternity system, and they get shunned and sidelined as they work their way through the popularity contest that is the Greek pledge routine.

Ready to give up on the whole effort, the fellas are invited to a party at a remote mansion by a lovely young woman, and they cannot resist the bait. This is, of course, a trap. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is… and there should have been warning signals going off everywhere, and Justin senses that this might all be a big prank. But these guys are so beaten down that they have to go give this the ol’ proverbial college try.

They reach the mansion, where the party of their dreams is taking place, and they are welcomed with uncommon courtesy by the chapter members. There they meet a couple of other prospective inductees Ben and Sam, and more importantly, several attractive young women, and the booze is free and plentiful. The party goes through the night, and when they are woken from their drunken stupors in the morning, they are invited back for a special gathering for later that evening. Our protagonists just can’t resist the offer.

After the small gathering of pledges gets the initial pep talk about how they are about to enter the elites of society, and the expected type of claptrap often espoused at these joining rituals, the young men are asked to surrender their phones, and their bags, and then the branding irons come out. Wait, what?

This is where the Hostel moment kicks in. What… did… we… get… ourselves… into? At first, this seems like hazing kicked up a notch, and some of the guys express a desire to show their dedication, as they so desperately want to belong to something that could lead to popularity, pretty girls, and prestige that they are willing to overlook the perversity that they are being put through.

And it gets BRUTAL. You can see it coming like a freight train. At some point, the pledges realize that this is a trap they very well may not get out of, and they try all sorts of variations of begging, bargaining, running, and fighting, and unlike so many variants of this story, the characters do seem to act with a logical purpose. The antagonists battle back with an intelligence of their own, and the stakes always seem very high.

Perhaps because I can see myself in the victims, I found myself strongly identifying with the protagonists. And I always preach, a horror movie is only effective insomuch as you have an emotional bond with the stakes of the protagonists.

The villains are revealed to be part of a larger cult (no big spoilers there) and there is a great twist that takes a quick bit of exposition from a fellow rescued captive that makes you go “Ohhhhh, gotcha.” However, the biggest flaw with the movie is that the motivations for the villains, though explained, is undercooked. Sometimes there’s a reason you have a villainous monologue. Oddly, we could have used one here.

The film is pretty short, at about 77 minutes. It knows what it has to do, and it is incredibly efficient. It is also fairly conventional in execution. What shines through to make the movie rise above its familiar cousins is the pathos of the Justin, Ethan, and David trio. The pain of the embarrassments that they suffer are almost as hard to watch as the torture and abuse they eventually endure. They aren’t instantly courageous, as they have been conditioned to just shrug things off and suffer timidly, and when they do battle back, it’s quite rewarding.

This movie was much better than I was expecting it to be. Better crafted. Better written. And better acted than I had any reason to expect. As a production, IFC Midnight has struck a nice balance between arthouse indie and grindhouse nasty, and places director Daniel Robbins (Uncaged) as one to watch.

Hats off to Zack Weiner, who not only plays David, the most awkward of our leads, but also is the screenwriter for this production. His script allows each character to be their own brand of either cast-off or sadist, and you get a good feel for each player. And, his David is written so naturally, that we all know that guy who just tries too hard to fit in, but can’t. He just has not sense of social graces, and yet his mates stick by him to the end.

Speaking of the end, it’s really well crafted. The survivors are tricked into a dead end. (Quite literally) Now cornered, when they have to fight back, it becomes clear that their tormentors are, though psychotic and better armed, are not physically superior to them, and the desperate battle is intense, and to be honest, a bit of a surprise as to the final outcome. The path to the finale follows strong precedents, but the actual final bell turns a well-honed trope on its head. But to tell you what that is would be to spoil a perfectly compelling conclusion.

Pledge is rated R for torture, violence, and killing… and language.
Pledge premiered at Screamfest in 2018, and was picked up by IFC Midnight, now available streaming on Amazon Prime.

Review by Eric Li
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