Most of us need not see the horrors of pledging to a fraternity or sorority in a movie to assume it's a degrading nightmare of dehumanizing embarrassment and psychological torture. Daniel Robbins' Pledge certainly doesn't reinvent the cinematic portrayal of frat initiation, but he does inject a fresh perspective through a decidedly more extreme low-budget vision.
Though not entirely about a frat, the film follows a trio of nerdy buds who are striking out all over campus; not just with the ladies, but with the campus fraternities that want no part of what the three are laying down. When they are approached by a girl who invites them to an exclusive party at an off-campus mansion they reluctantly decide to check it out. There, they are treated to the time of their lives and invited back to attempt to pledge their way into joining an elite group that guarantees they will be kings of the campus and have every door on the corporate ladder opened. However, membership comes at a price and they have to look inward to decide if they have what it takes to survive the club's hazing process.
Robbins eases the audience in with some light-hearted banter between our three main dweebs. In fact, early scenes play out as though we might be in for something of a dark comedy. Though we know better given the cold open which features a chubby college kid getting his head caved in with a baseball bat while running for his life. The opening of the film has a delightful synth track playing over the credits, which is another key that most likely even though we're rolling our eyes at the tired horny college geek antics that maybe things aren't going to be as haha funny as they appear.
The ease of the approach is welcome given how grim the second and third act of the film get. The three main characters led by Zack Weiner (who also wrote the film) are joined by two additional pledges as they are hazed relentlessly by a trio of sociopaths, Max (Aaron Dolla Villa), Ricky (Cameron Cowperthwaite), and Bret (Jesse Pimentel). The hazing escalates rapidly as the pledges are branded with a hot iron and realize quickly that maybe they don't have what it takes to be a part of this club. They are constantly eased back into believing this is all just a part of the process by Ricky as he is played pitch perfectly by Cowperthwaite who switches from your supportive best friend to bloodthirsty psycho on a dime. Max, played by Dolla Villa is no doubt unhinged and at times it's hard to take the actor at face value--either by look or by the more high-pitched tone of his voice when he's screaming like a madman. Either way, the performances all around are pretty great and an anchoring part of the film.
Taking place almost entirely in the confines of the mansion the events escalate naturally to a head where we are greeted by a pretty clever (if telegraphed twist) that also provides a fresh take on the college subgenre. Scenes are pasted together by a nice collection of music choices and a pretty effective score capped off by a super ominous version of the "Pomp and Circumstance" march during the credits.
Pledge won't be for everyone, but for those in the mood for a somewhat unhinged take on the fraternity experience that's part college comedy, grim torture flick, and part cat and mouse thriller. Where your enjoyment lies will be hinged on how believable the actors are and how much of the dehumanizing hazing you can stomach.
Screened as part of the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival.