‘Pledge’ Questions the Horrors of Toxic Masculinity and College Social Life

Greek life is a quintessential part of the American college experience. Fraternities and sororities are known for their cult-like behavior, wild parties, and questionable hazing rituals. But rather than questioning this strange societal obsession, it has been widely accepted, and even encouraged because these groups encourage close friendships and offer the promise of potential professional connections. Fraternities are central to teen comedies, from Animal House to Neighbors— they are familiar sight and are the epitome of being a cool guy. But behind closed frat house doors, horrors can unfold. David Robbins’ Pledge captures those horrors, taking what is seen as a normal part of growing up, and pushes it to its gory, terrifying extreme — toxic masculinity is on the chopping block in Pledge. Bordering on torture porn, it questions the forms of masculinity we covet and what that means for anyone that does not fall into that very specific category.

Pledge begins with three awkward college freshmen who, in varying degrees, want nothing more than to rush a fraternity. Rushing means they will be accepted into a sacred brotherhood of booze and hot women. But unfortunately, these boys don’t fit the typical fraternity bill. They aren’t tall or muscular with perfectly-gelled blonde hair, their jokes fall flat, they have no rhythm, and they can’t stomach shots of liquor in rapid succession. They are mercilessly mocked and kicked out of every frat house they enter. Just when they are about to give up hope and resign themselves to a lonely college experience, they’re invited to another kind of rush party. It’s for a social club, which is believed to be much more elite. This all sounds like a setup in a Judd Apatow movie, where the boys will run into a series of hilarious sexual exploits. But then, the sinister undertones start rolling in.

At this social club, the boys are treated like royalty. Women fall all over them, the liquor flows like water, and all of their jokes seem to land perfectly. They feel like they’ve finally found where they belong. Sadly, the club’s brothers could smell their insecurity from a mile away and are preying on it; these freshmen who do not fit the acceptable form of masculinity become victims. What won’t they do to be a part of a group bigger than themselves?

This is when the true horror begins to reveal itself. As the rush begins, the candles are lit, the lights are turned off, and the ritual begins. These boys are subjected to trial after tortuous trial to test their strength and dedication to the club. Many of the trials, such as being branded, eating soup made from rats, and being mercilessly called demeaning names, aren’t far from the truth. Fraternities are known for their sadistic hazing rituals that involve binge drinking, physical harm, and manipulation. But that’s what makes the trials of Pledge so much more terrifying; this has happened before in the real world. People willingly subject themselves to this to feel acceptance. These rituals are stomach-wrenching and nauseating; it feels like you are in the room with these poor freshmen.

However, to push it into true horror territory, Pledge takes thess rituals to the extreme, but I won’t spoil the surprises. It becomes full on torture porn that may not sit well for some, though the torture is used to make a rather poignant statement about the lengths we’ll go to prove we’re good enough.

Pledge has a tight hour and seventeen minute runtime, though the tension and torture can feel agonizing in a masochistic, satisfying way. The film’s duration means that some plot points are left a little too vague or aren’t well explained; there’s a lot going on in such a short amount of time. With so little time, Robbins does everything possible to shock audiences, as if he’s grabbing us by the shoulders, shaking us, and screaming, “Why do we still care so much about fraternities?”

This is can be a hard film to stomach, especially for those that may have had a not-so-enjoyable experience with Greek life. The torture scenes escalate to the point of medieval torture methods involving starving rats, along with quite an interesting twist that again comments on the persistent of systems of masculine violence. But it is an important horror film that engages with toxic masculinity in a place that is seen as the core of college life. Pledge is a film that will make you hesitate before regaling your tales of fraternity exploits, or even before you are about to set foot into a sweaty, dim, slightly sticky frat house.

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