Pledge

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Pledge
"The standout is Byrd, who delivers compelling work throughout."

If you're an American boy from a sheltered background looking forward to going to college, there may be a lot of things you expect from it besides an education. Whether you watch college-set movies or read actual college promotional materials - and especially if you read fraternity websites - you could be forgiven for thinking that you're going to spend several years partying every night and drinking to excess, surrounded by scantily clad young women, before going on to waltz into a top job. Of course the reality isn't like that for most students, but it's still what freshmen David (Zack Weiner), Justin (Zachery Byrd) and Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello) are hoping for when they arrive. The trouble is, they can't find any fraternity willing to let them in.

The reason why is pretty obvious. They're all nerdy guys. They don't fit with the image that they themselves are attracted to. Not having taken in that there are probably others in their petition, they begin to feel despondent. But then slender young blonde Rachel (Erica Boozer) invites them to a party where they have the night of their lives. The dream finally seems to be coming true. This isn't exactly a fraternity - it's more of an off-campus social club - but if they want to join it, they still have to pledge. Stunned by the invitation, of course they say yes.

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Given that this film screened at Fantasia and is doing the rounds of horror festivals, viewers are unlikely to take long to identify this as a mistake. Indeed, there have been plenty of films based on real-life hazing incidents that should serve as warning enough - and herein lies this film's difficulty. This is a subject area in which it's difficult to compete with real life. Everyone expects some measure of brutality, some encounters with the grotesque. Although things get much worse for our heroes than they anticipated, they don't get significantly more unpleasant for the audience, and director Daniel Robbins struggles to create a sense of shock that extends beyond individual moments of making viewers want to look away.

What the film does well is to manage the switch between the lighthearted, comedic mood of the early scenes and the bleakness of the hazing scenes. It's also very strong on character. The villains most fall into standard trust fund kid psychopath mode (though there's an interesting moment when one doubts himself), but the freshman all come across as individuals and feel very real and human. From their cheerful early camaraderie to their squabbles and traded reassurance when things start to go wrong, they work really well together, which makes it easier to care when bad things happen to them. The standout is Byrd, who delivers compelling work throughout. It's all the pleasing because he's the fat kid - usually disposable sidekick material - so seeing him get room to develop is a real treat.

Though they're heavily sexualised in the way one would expect given the subject matter, the few female characters also seem to have something going on upstairs and a bit more depth that in most such films. It's important that we recognise everyone as human because the ability to do so - and thereby to keep one's own humanity - becomes a key plot point. Again, it's familiar territory, but the actors handle it well.

The Pledge doesn't break any new ground, but it's a solid little horror movie with plentiful unpleasantness for those who like that sort of thing, and it marks out Byrd as a talent to watch.

Reviewed on: 02 Aug 2018
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Pledge packshot
Rejected by the main campus fraternities, three young men accept a beautiful woman's invitation to undergo a hazing experience at a remote woodland mansion, only to find that their lives are on the line.

Festivals:

Fantasia 2018

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Goat
Haze