There have been countless stories in the news of college hazing gone wrong, and one of the biggest questions that emerges is why anyone would want to join a fraternity or sorority that gleefully demoralizes those who wish to join their ranks. Or how far are you willing to go to find acceptance? Pledge follows a trio of freshmen looking to make the most of their college experience by seeking out a fraternity to join during rush week. When they’re consistently rebuffed by all the campus frats, a beautiful woman invites them to an isolated mansion party. There they find a welcoming upper-class fraternity, but joining them means they might not make it out alive.
Lead protagonists Justin (Zachery Byrd), Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello), and David (screenwriter Zack Weiner) are quickly established as archetypal outcasts. David is the driving force behind the friends’ quest for fraternity membership; Ethan and Justin are far more content to hang out in their dorm rooms and play video games. It means that David is also the most desperate to find acceptance. After a long day of rejection, the friendly reception by Max (Aaron Dalla Villa), Bret (Jesse Pimental), and Ricky (Cameron Cowperthwaite) at their posh mansion is a soothing balm. It gives plausibility and insight to why these freshmen take a while to realize their new buds have nefarious designs on their pledging.
From the setup, and the stereotypical characters, you can pretty much guess how this night will play out. What keeps it from falling into tedium, however, is the journey itself. Each act of hazing and initiation increases in depravity and violence. There’s a twisted voyeuristic quality as you watch Max, Bret, and Ricky blend together the most repulsive ingredients and force their unsuspecting pledges to eat it. That’s just one of the more mundane hazing rituals the fraternity brothers subject their pledges to. Screenwriter Weiner and director Daniel Robbins have effectively created a college hazing version of the boiling frog fable, this one steeped in pitch black humor and shocking violence. Eventually, our plucky leads realize they might be in over their heads and the night turns into a tense standoff.
The short run time and lean pacing means a mean thriller with creative ways for the leads to get subjected to cringe-worthy brutality. There’s a grainy haze to scenes shot in dim lighting that distracts at times, but otherwise, Robbins delivers a film that feels bigger than its budget. Pledge is a film where the second act shines, focused more on the action and sickening violence than characters. There’s not a lot of depth to the characters; each one serves a specific purpose and stereotype to fill. Justin and Ethan are the most fully developed and Byrd and Botello imbue them with empathy and intelligence. The villains don’t fare as well, with Pimental and Dalla Villa opting for mustache-twirling caricatures of entitled elite.
For those that like their thrillers fast and warped, Pledge is an entertaining take on a familiar story. Partying, torture, death, and dark humor makes for a fun and sometimes gruesome watch. The quick pace heightens the stakes quickly, but it also doesn’t leave any room to get to know any of the characters beyond their surface value. Ultimately, though, it succeeds in what it set out to accomplish.