By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 12, 2019
*IN SELECT THEATERS AND ON MAJOR VOD OUTLETS*
Released Jan. 11, 2019
Unrated (equal to rated R for violence, torture, sadism, thematic elements, and language) – 1hr 17min
Directed by Daniel Robbins
Starring Zachery Byrd, Phillip Andre Botello, Aaron Dalla Villa, Zack Weiner
College freshmen and social outcasts Justin (Byrd), Ethan (Botello), and David (Weiner) are having no luck in their attempt to rush a fraternity – that is until they are invited to an exclusive gathering off-campus. There, they enjoy a wild and raucous party, courtesy of the charismatic Max (Dalla Villa) and his accommodating bros. The trio are invited back to pledge for membership the next evening, but when they arrive, they find the group to not be so accommodating anymore. How much will these young men endure to prove they belong?
Pledge is a fast and nasty thriller that wastes virtually nothing in its spartan 77-minute runtime. Both stomach-churning and thought-provoking, it deftly poses a host of uncomfortable questions about numerous social matters, all while moving at a sprint.
Narrative: In a word, Pledge is economic. The story makes the most of each scene, be it setting up its premise, building its characters, establishing its setting, or putting everything into motion with an agonizing gauntlet of atrocities. It’s not mere voyeurism though – it has a lot to say about the dynamics of social elitism, masculinity, peer pressure, and conformity. It’s telling that the fictional frat’s mascot is the rat – when it sees what it wants, it will pursue that thing with a voracious tenacity, stopping at nothing and plowing through anything to get it. That’s an example of the economy employed in the script – much is conveyed when that is the core value of the university’s most elite social group. Now, there’s not a wealth of surprises to be had throughout – a twist here and a turn there that aren’t exactly mind-blowing – but the ending is a gem. The proceedings are wrapped up in such a way that the movie manages to gnaw its way into the brain and make a nest there.
Circumstances certainly go from bad to worse here.
Acting: Everybody involved does what they need to when they need to do it. In a movie with nine principal characters and no solo moments to be had, no one steals the proverbial show, and that’s to the benefit of Pledge. It allows for the emergence of a convincing us-vs-them ensemble that succeeds to be compelling. Again, going back to being economical, each member of the cast communicates a lot of context with single lines of dialogue or individual facial expressions and body language. The early scenes of the protagonists are cringe-inducingly awkward. Their despair, once they are hapless pledges, comes across as genuinely uncertain, which motivates their compliance, as does the authentic Jekyll-and-Hyde mannerisms of the frat bros. In short, the actors give the film a sickly realism that allows its themes to thrive.
Direction: While certainly helped by an efficient script from co-star Zack Weiner, it’s uncommon to see a film that moves as fast as Pledge while remaining fully cohesive. Director David Robbins pulls the effort together with style too. The opening shot is especially commendable – presumably filmed with a drone, it brings the camera in from VERY far down into the middle of an obviously unfortunate situation already in progress. It’s an effective introduction. Later, when the going gets rough, Robbins utilizes techniques that successfully invoke a claustrophobic feel – while the setting itself is not especially confined, it captures the vibe of the vicious confinement that the pledges have willingly volunteered themselves for and the distinct social pressures that keep them compliant. He also possesses a keen instinct as to when to shift perspective, uncomfortably cycling the audience through the roles of fellow victim, co-conspirator, and complicit witness. Later, as things become more desperate and frantic, he adeptly delivers the action in a tense and satisfying manner. It’s a seriously impressive effort.
Please see the previous caption for reference.
Horror Elements: Those looking to Pledge for outrageously gruesome torture and kills are going to leave disappointed. The movie keeps its feet firmly planted in a utilitarian realism – which benefits an immersive atmosphere – favoring a simpler brutality over wildly elaborate gore-tacular scenarios. It does have a couple standout moments though, particularly at the point of no return, but those scenes are still played very straight, forsaking any over-the-top splatter. Given the other components of the film, it’s the right approach here. Further, there’s nothing secretly supernatural here or any reliance on jump scares – the emphasis is strongly, if not exclusively, on disturbing discomfort.
Sound: The retro synth score is very much back in favor right now, and Pledge has one too. I’m not complaining though – I happen to love that style and composer Jon Natchez provides a fittingly tense effort.
TL;DR: This will likely prove to be a love-or-hate experience for viewers. Those who aren’t turned off by the gut-wrenching content or problematic themes on the one hand might be rashly irritated by the existence of another socially woke horror movie. If that doesn’t sound like you, then watch it now. It’s incredibly solid from start to finish and an exceptionally grueling horror experience. 2019 is still very young, but it’s going to be difficult to remove Pledge from our year-end Top 10.