Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Haze is the strongest piece of work on this subject for a long time."

The day before this review was written, ten members of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity at Louisiana State University were arrested in connection with the death of 18-year-old Maxwell Gruver, who died after drinking a dangerous amount of alcohol during a hazing ritual, allegedly because he was forced to. His is the second such death of the year; it has been decades since the year passed without one.

Convictions related to hazing are notoriously hard to secure, yet the practice has been widely banned by college authorities, who recognise that there's a fine line between being forced to do something, as the law understands it, and simply feeling that one has no choice because of the desperate pressure to belong. With fraternity old boy networks wielding a powerful influence within many prestigious US industries, there is arguably also an element of economic coercion. At a point in US history where concern about the mechanics and ethics of conformity is becoming much more widespread, David Burkman takes a look at hazing practices that plunges viewers right in at the deep end.

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From a Scottish perspective, the whole idea of the 'Greek system' seems somewhat bizarre, a desperate attempt to appropriate other people's history in a culture with little of its own - a sort of national attempt to conform at the expense of committing to the development of national character. Burkman engages with this awkwardness by structuring his story around elements taken from Euripides' The Bacchae, something openly acknowledged in the script. Although his conclusion takes a different turn, the open ending of Euripides' play adds a disturbing subtext to the film.

Playing the part of Pentheus is Pete (Mike Blejer), a young man who has responded to the hazing death of a fellow student by becoming determined to expose Psi Theta Epsilon, the fraternity he holds responsible. This is unfortunate for his younger brother Nick (Kirk Curran), who desperately wants to join Psi Theta Epsilon now that he has become a student. Torn between competing notions of brotherhood, he is nonetheless thrilled when he's selected to go through the tests and possibly become a member, and he accepts the warning that it will be harder for him because of who his brother is. His infatuation with sorority girl Sophie (Sophia Medley), a senior who is clear from the outset that it would be beneath her to date him, only adds to his enthusiasm. So when he is asked to begin the process by eating a live goldfish, he doesn't hesitate. Burkman is getting one of the better known fraternity tests out of the way first only because he has worse still in store.

Traditionally, bonding rituals like this have been used by cults around the world to bind people together by secrets so horrible that they'll never risk betraying one another for fear of what might come out. Naturally, there is also an element of humiliation in this. Racism, homophobia, Islamophobia and more are among the tools used not just for shock value but to break down individuals' sense of identity. Copious quantities of alcohol help to break down their resistance and they are expected to vomit, expose themselves and provide endless blackmail material. But there is a still more sinister side to this, with acts of vandalism and intimidation also required. As they become more animalistic, the boys engage with this with increasing enthusiasm. That wild and cheerful Eighties college movie notion that anything goes is taken to extremes as dangerously uncontrolled beatings are delivered and women become objects for sexual humiliation.

There is no pretence here that women are not themselves party to similar behaviours. Nick's childhood friend Mimi (Kristin Rogers) is also a new student, a sorority candidate, and more alert to what's happening than he is, which means that her experience is a lot more painful. She also has to contend with her unreciprocated feelings for him which, as he is primed for cruelty, he becomes ever more willing to exploit. A key scene in which she repeats everything he says and gives it a new, more profound meaning is one of the few examples of obvious artifice in a film that feels very natural, but it works well thanks to Rogers' performance, providing an emotional turning point in the narrative. By the end, both characters will be transformed.

Haze is the strongest piece of work on this subject for a long time. Burkman knows the cinematic language of teen movies well and uses it, even in utterly naturalistic scenes, to help his audience relate to the inductees' expectations of college life. In a sidelong way, this hints at cinema's contribution to the toxic masculinity currently being discussed in the context of the film industry. Haze isn't just an exposé of such behaviours and one of the ways in which they're cultivated; it's an antidote of sorts. Its party scenes are likely to draw in precisely the kind of people problem fraternities themselves are looking for; but this party pill, once swallowed, quickly turns bitter.

Reviewed on: 12 Oct 2017
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Haze packshot
In the aftermath of a brutal fraternity hazing death, a college freshman's desire to join the best fraternity on campus is compromised when his older brother launches an anti-hazing crusade.

Director: David Burkman

Writer: David Burkman

Starring: Kirk Curran, Mike Blejer, Jeremy O'Shea, Kristin Rogers, Sophia Medley, Paul Savage

Year: 2016

Runtime: 106 minutes

Country: US


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