January 8, 2019 Pledge (Movie Review)
Great men don’t have a breaking point — or so says one truly exclusive fraternity who are guaranteed to go to extremes. If you can stomach the heinous reality, enter the dark, seedy underbelly of Pledge, which arrives to select theaters and VOD on Friday, January 11, 2019, thanks to IFC Midnight.
Let’s face it, oddballs David (Zack Weiner: The Convenient Job 2015, Uncaged 2016), Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello: Funny People 2009, Criminal Minds series) and Justin (Zachery Byrd: Blindspot series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt series) are not your typical fraternity material. As the three friends are repeatedly ousted from fraternity rush parties, sometimes kindly and other times not so kindly, they grow increasingly frustrated. Somewhere there must be a Greek house on campus that will accept them, right?
A series of (un)fortunate events leads them to gain an invitation to a sprawling country estate, and the chance to rush a super-restrictive social club. At a party overflowing with booze and lovely ladies, they meet the club’s three main men — Maxwell (Aaron Dalla Villa: Duels series, Gotham series), Ricky (Cameron Cowperthwaite: A Theory for Tangled Wires short 2016, American Horror Story series), and Bret (Jesse Pimentel: In the Moment series, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard video game 2017).
Invited to return the next night to officially seek admittance into the secretive organization, one so particular that it only has a handful of active members at any given time, the three nerdy friends are joined by two additions — Sam (Jean-Louis Droulers: Impression short 2011, Pollo Cante short 2015) and Ben (Joe Gallagher: Six Degrees of Murder series, Valiant Vermin: Online Lover short 2018). It’s no shock to anyone but the quintet that they are destined for pain and sacrifice, but how far are any of these guys willing to go to achieve acceptance?
Having premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival, Pledge had a successful festival run that included wins for Best Director and Best Editing at the Screamfest Horror Film Festival. Clocking in at roughly 77-minutes, the film was directed by Daniel Robbins (The Convenient Job 2015, Uncaged 2016), while its script was written by actor Weiner (who stars as David). It also features Melanie Rothman (Stable short 2015, Laid 2017) as Stacey, and Erica Boozer (The Dirty Thirty 2016, 3 Doors From Paradise 2018) as Rachel.
If you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Oh goodie, another unimaginative Horror-Thriller that takes on Greek life,’ you are not alone! At first glance, Pledge falls perfectly into that derivative and largely ridiculous subgenre of films that includes such recent gems as 2018’s The Row. Of course, looks can always be deceiving! Through splendid direction and superb cinematography, wonderful acting and a unique plot twist, Pledge amounts to something that is a grotesquely intriguing surprise for viewers.
In fact, even its score by Jon Natchez is superb, shifting and evolving with the flow of the tale; haunting at times while reflecting current Pop Culture in others. This fact aside, first thing’s first: Pledge is not aimed at the easily offended or those who find themselves quickly disgusted. It goes all out to make sure that viewers are suitably disturbed, that everyone watching this film immediately questions why anyone would put themselves through this psychopathic ritual. The five young men in question are put through challenges worthy of Fear Factor (minus the piss), but with sadistic, sociopathic ringleaders taunting them every step of the way. You have been warned!
Truth be told, much of the film’s ability to disturb its viewers is thanks to its stellar casting. The tiny but mighty Dalla Villa (as Max) gives a performance that is perfectly vile and, at times, fraught with twisted humor. He is hysterical in all senses, prowling over his pledges and demanding blood and guts. Cowperthwaite, as his sidekick Ricky, is equally talented at portraying a sadistic sociopath, though perhaps it is his ability to also play the calmly sympathetic side of the coin that makes him even more alarming in his role. Able to switch between friendly and fiendish with the snap of a finger, Cowperthwaite is suitably devious and therefore delicious in the role of Ricky. Unfortunately, the third musketeer of evil, Pimentel’s Bret, is left to brooding facial expressions and bloody rage.
For our lead characters, the trio of lovable weirdos, Weiner, Botello, and Byrd do a wonderful job of relaying their individual tropes. Weiner’s David is the uber geek with glasses, who, when nervous, tends to fill the air with babble; a young man who desperately wants acceptance at any cost. He is a kind of de facto leader for his friends, with Byrd’s Justin being the overweight gamer nerd and Botello’s Ethan less a perfect trope and more of a middle-ground character. Which, in English, means that Ethan is not blatantly a dork, but perhaps suffering from guilt by association.
No matter how you define them, it is abundantly clear that these young men are outsiders and, to some degree, each of them is desperate for the golden ticket to popularity. Each of the actors gives his all to his character, with Byrd taking quite a few hurtful comments on his weight while Weiner seems to relish in his dorkiness.
With the cast and crew firing on all cylinders, Pledge is elevated and we are able to reach the (ratty) meat beneath its grotesque exterior. Because despite its sinister, sociopathic tale, the lesson of this film is that, whether we are a brain, athlete, basketcase, princess or criminal, we are not so very different from one another. As human beings, we all seek acceptance — sometimes to a tragic, horrifying fault. Darkly twisted with cringey thrills, there is an ultimate redemption to Pledge and that is what gives the film its strength. For these reasons, Cryptic Rock give Pledge 4 of 5 stars.