Release Date: January 11, 2019 (Limited)
Besides an attention-grabbing opener that shows its hand, “Pledge” deceptively begins as a college comedy about the desire to belong before bleeding into a nightmare about toxic masculinity and the juice not being worth the squeeze. Director Daniel Robbins and writer Zack Weiner (who also co-stars) take a page out of Eli Roth’s pacing and structure in 2006’s “Hostel,” and then proceed to take the boys-will-be-boys mentality to an extreme level. Filling out its 78 efficiently, “Pledge” is confidently shot and has a nasty, buzzy thrill about itself, but would it have killed the filmmakers to at least provide a more likable or just sympathetic character who didn’t feel like composite leftovers from a “Porky’s” sequel?
Hoping to rush a fraternity, geeky freshman friends David (Zack Weiner), Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello), and Justin (Zachery Byrd) instantly get kicked out of a frat party for being “weird.” When they follow the address for a party given to them by attractive coed Rachel (Erica Boozer), it takes them far off-campus beyond a chain-locked gate to the house of an exclusive social club where the three good-looking bro members are more than welcoming and the party is filled with beautiful young women. It all seems too good to be true. The morning after, the three friends, plus two other unsuspecting pledges, are invited back the next night by rush chairman Maxwell Peterson III (Aaron Dalla Villa). Over the next 48 hours, they are tested physically, mentally, and emotionally but, once literal branding is the tip-off, not in ways they are expecting when their lives seem to be on the line by this shadowy organization. Bloodlust is just hazing, though, right?
Dragging the name of fraternities through the mud even more than 2016’s “Goat” already did, “Pledge” is tense for a while before it grows annoying and off-putting. To its credit, there are a few surprises, like who ends up being the “Final Boy,” and a torture method by way of a rat, fire, and a bucket is a wicked, if not entirely novel, way to kill off a character. The actors are certainly game for the fraternity hazing scenes and the wringer they’re put through, too, but none of them are defined as anything more than types. That these friends don’t have much more to talk about makes them feel like scripted creations, and while David, Ethan, and Justin will never be the same again, “Pledge” doesn’t really give us anyone to truly root for in the end.
Grade: C +