Pledge. 2019. Directed by Daniel Robbins. Screenplay by Zack Weiner.
Starring Zachery Byrd, Phillip Andre Botello, Zack Weiner, Aaron Dalla Villa, Cameron Cowperthwaite, Jesse Pimentel, Joe Gallagher, Jean-Louis Droulers, Erica Boozer, & Melanie Rothman.
BoulderLight Pictures / Stag Pictures
Not Rated. 77 minutes.
Horror / Thriller
There are many American films depicting frat culture, like the recent Goat, a decidedly serious look at violent male culture in colleges, and older comedies such as Animal House or contemporary, excellent foolishness like Old School. Generally, the institution of fraternities in the U.S. has been treated as comedic fodder for stories of redemption, friendship, and raunchy humour. In reality, frat houses are akin to an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, not a barrel of laughs featuring Will Ferrell or John Belushi.
Pledge offers a hyperrealistic vision of the frat world that’s simultaneously outrageously exaggerated and also true to the nature of these violent, male-dominated institutions. The screenplay by Zack Weiner – also plays one of the unfortunate pledges – digs into the hideous truths of fraternities, exploring violence, classism, and the dangers of white men who cling to primitive ways of life as a method of preserving a mythical sense of culture that’s only existed in their minds, not in reality.
Throughout the film there are moments of dark comedy, though the bulk of the story and plot remain fixed on the serious, the macabre, and, of course, the brutal. There’s no shortage of nastiness— Father Gore likes to think of himself as a hardened horror hound and one scene put his gag reflex to the TEST. Yet theme is what’s important. Capitalist imagery is used throughout Pledge to parallel frat culture’s devious inner workings to that of capitalism, showing similarity between these two cruel systems of exploitation.
Anyone honest knows a fraternity isn’t about brotherhood, so much as it’s about pack mentality, dangerous loyalties, and predatory behaviour in pursuit of immoral hedonism. The only connections being built to last are those tied to capitalism, between young dudes who need other young dudes to serve as potential alibis, business contacts, and Get Out of Jail Free cards later in life. Fraternities exist as a damaging, destructive force that turns little monsters into bigger ones, as well as transforms young men who might have otherwise become sensible grown men into bourgeois terrors.
The social function of the frat is akin to capitalism, only further driven by toxic masculine ideals. Frat culture convinces young men to ‘just take it’ and everything will work out— the reward is, to them, worth any pain. A frat, like a capitalist economy, encourages young guys to foster an environment of harmful competition, masquerading as a system open to all when it’s actually a rigid class system unto itself.
There’s an excellent use of branding here that ties hazing to commodification. In capitalism, many things are turned into commodities. The body has been commodified in a variety of ways, including manual labour like trades workers and also the labour of sex workers, among many examples. When the Krypteia frat brands its pledges this is another piece of capitalist imagery that reduces the male body to beef and turns young men into commodities to be consumed for bourgeois purposes.
One of the final pledges left standing in the end, Justin (Zachery Byrd), is another example of parallels between frats and capitalist industry. He’s survived the vicious hazing, only to be indoctrinated into the ruling class. Instead of capital + money, social mobility in fraternities is gauged in violence. To preserve himself, Justin must become one of the upper class, similar to capitalism forcing the exploited into becoming the exploiter. Fraternities transform prey into predators, turning sheep into wolves on a mass scale of production.
“Privilege comes with hard work, comes with sacrifice.”
Power and control in the bourgeois bring out the medieval in man, like the days of feudalism have returned with all its inequality and torture. The frat – called the Krypteia or Crypteia – is actually modelled off an ancient institution of the same name dating back to Ancient Sparta. Krypteia comes from the Greek kruptós (“hidden, secret things“). The institution’s considered by contemporary scholars as a secret police created by Sparta’s ruling class to terrorise the lower class, preventing threats of rebellion. Ultimately the frat institution as a whole, like the Krypteia, is one that privileges the bourgeois and its traditions at the expense of all else: women, the poor, people of colour.
When people of colour talk of celebrating their culture they aren’t holding up institutions or traditions of violence— it’s their language, religion, and customs they wish to retain. White men whining about ‘white culture’ are concerned with traditions like the Krypteia. An uncomfortable scene involves Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello), the only black pledge, being forcibly branded. This goes back to gruesome traditions in white American culture during slavery, when black people were branded on the shoulders, cheeks, or buttocks as a form of corporal punishment, permanently marking a slave’s body with the brand of their owner. There’s Irish culture, Norwegian culture, et cetera, but there’s no such thing as ‘white culture’ and those who refer to it are often, if not always, codifying racism. Ethan’s branding moment calls America’s dark racial history out of the shadows to give appropriate context to the traditions of violence being upheld by the fictional Krypteia, as well as the same traditions that are attempting to be upheld by neo-Nazis/other white supremacists to this day. Krypteia stands in as a symbol of all the destructive institutional values continually perpetuated throughout the Western world.
“It’s not about hunting these people, it’s about learning not to see them as people at all.”
Fraternities manufacture monstrosity in young men because, at their core, they are factories of dehumanisation. They teach men not only how to dehumanise another person, but also how to use that dehumanised individual to their advantage and switch off their own humanity when necessary. Frats don’t operate on brotherhood, they operate on blackmail, coercion, manipulation, and violence. They’re a breeding ground for the young bourgeois, who’ll go on to manipulate anybody beneath them through any/all forms of institutional, physical, and psychological violence.
Daniel Robbins gives us one of the smartest horrors so far in 2019 because he refuses to tone anything down. This could easily have been a simple, reductive slice of ‘torture porn’ going for the lowest common denominator. Instead it’s a gruesome evisceration of white American values. The screenplay resonates deeply in a day and age when right-wing maniacs spiral deeper into racism every week, rallying around a mythical U.S.A. that never truly existed outside the patriotic conservative hive mind. The idea of social horror isn’t new, in spite of non-horror critics who acted like Jordan Peele’s amazing debut Get Out was the first— it’s been around a long time, reaching back to Wes Craven, Roberta Findlay, George A. Romero, and further to directors like Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Pledge never strays into preachy territory and, like the best of these stories, serves a definitively sociopolitical purpose, and horror lets that purpose shine with a horrifying glory.