How did Groucho warn us?
“I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”
He wasn’t talking about fraternities, but he could have been. Those are words to live by.
And when every frat on campus is ignoring, dismissing or rebuffing you — “This is a closed rush party, man….You guys are WEIRD.” — well, maybe you ought to be suspicious.
The hot coed (Erica Boozer) who purrs, “If you’re not doing anything, you should come by” and jotting an address on your palm?
Maybe it’s just a prank. Maybe it’s worse. And when the remote “social club” house (“We’re not a fraternity!”) is led by preppy punks with Brett Kavanaugh eyes, be afraid. Be very afraid.
“Pledge” is a bloody, nervy and lean thriller about “hazing” taken to its logical extreme. If you’re OK with torturing somebody so that the “shared experience” will “bond” you to your “brothers,” maybe there’s a little sociopath in you, Pledge.
Justin, Ethan and David (Zachery Byrd, Phillip Andre Botello and screenwriter Zack Weiner) are three “Big Bang Theory” nerds blundering their way through bacchanals and “Day Drink” rush week parties at their new college, when opportunity knocks.
The “party” at the remote unnamed not-a-frat-house has nubile coeds, drugs, endless “shots” three leaders of that club with the aforementioned Kavanaugh-eyes.
Ricky (Cameron Cowperthwaite) charms them, but cannot hide his edge.
Bret (Jesse Pimentel) doesn’t even try to hide the scary. And Max (Aaron Dalla Villa)? The psychopath vibe is strong with this one.
But desperate. always-tries-too-hard David, his two new pals and two other pledges accept the invitation to return.
“Thank you, sir. Bless your heart.”
“Your future is going to be so f—–g bright, you’re going to have to wear sunglasses to look in the mirror!”
There is no skepticism, barely a flinch among the five would-be “members.” They submit to a 48 hour hazing in which “you will be tested physically, mentally, emotionally.”
And that’s when the horror starts. The hazers name David “president,” and then force him to make his first executive decision — “Do we brand you, or everybody else?”
Zack Weiner’s simple, formulaic script works by staying right on the cusp of reality. Branding still goes on, almost certainly not as savagely as this. Fraternities degrade women, as a matter of course, and demean and dehumanize pledges as indoctrination.
And the go-along-with-it lemmings who join put up with it.
“We’re gonna brand you for all the right REASONS!”
These guys — Max in particular — are sadists, probably racists (Ethan gets a “How’bout you, Spike Lee?” query when it’s his turn).
And the pledges — compliant, young and shocked, just take it. Five freshmen and not one of them asks to see the members’ brands?
The branding is just the start to the torture.
“We’re looking for your breaking point, gentlemen. Because GREAT men don’t have one.”
By the time some of the guys realize they’re in over their heads, it’s too late.
The performances have a nice whimper until you’ve had enough quality, with Weiner writing himself the biggest character arc and Dalla Villa of TV’s “Duels” standing out as a short guy even the biggest pledge (Byrd) would fear.
Weiner and director Daniel Robbins (“Uncaged”) move “Pledge” along so briskly that the viewer, like the trapped pledges, have little time to consider their options and plot their escape. They are five facing off with three. Granted, the three are pretty violent and the freshmen are understandably cowed, but resisting and maybe not running away UPSTAIRS should enter into their thinking, at some point.
There’s a blunt efficiency to the escalating violence, and an eyes-averting cringe-worthiness to some of the torture.
If you like thrillers that don’t waste your time and have a natural mistrust of any “fraternity” that would want you as a member, “Pledge” is right up your alley.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence
Cast: Zachery Byrd, Phillip Andre Botello, Aaron Dalla Villa, Zack Weiner, Erica Boozer, Cameron Cowperthwaite
Credits: Directed by Daniel Robbins, script by Zack Weiner. An IFC Midnight release.
Running time: 1:18