It’s not often you see a low-budget film that really blows you away on every possible level. The movie BROTHERHOOD has been elusive to me multiple times, as I missed it last year at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and at last year’s Dallas International Film Festival. Since then, I’ve heard nothing but good thing about the project, and have anxiously awaited the opportunity to check it out. The coolest thing about the movie is that it was essentially shot in my hometown… well, almost, as it was filmed in Arlington, Texas – about 20 minutes away. Now it’s safe to say Texas has its share of notable colleges, including University of North Texas in Denton, Southern Methodist University (SMU) here in Dallas, and head South to find endless more you’ve undoubtedly heard of. I for one never got to experience the fraternity lifestyle, but had enough friends involved in them, and have either witnessed first hand or heard numerous stories to know the kinds of things that go on. Through the years, most movies involving frats lean toward the “comedy” angle, like ANIMAL HOUSE or PCU, but the filmmakers of BROTHERHOOD take a much more serious direction with their story.
The film opens following numerous young men in a van in which Frank (Jon Foster), the Sigma Zeta Chi fraternity leader, is forcing various pledges to to jump out behind convenience stores around town and rob said stores of $19.10 – because 1910 is when their frat was founded. It’s incredibly tense, and even though the eager pledges go through with it one by one, they don’t realize the prank is actually a prank on them in a sense. Adam (Trevor Morgan) pulls it off, and assures his friend Kevin (Lou Taylor Pucci) everything will be fine when it’s his turn. But when Kevin takes a go at it, things go horribly wrong, and the clerk named Mike (Arlen Escarpeta) at his store ends up shooting the would be robber. The frat brothers grab the injured Kevin and rush him back to their house, which is occupied by an out of control party. After quickly clearing out the drunks, Frank tries to formulate a plan which will prevent anyone from discovering Kevin’s injury. Adam insists they should just take him to the hospital. It’s then decided that they should return to the store to get the security tape, in a further attempt to cover their tracks. Things get worse from there, as kidnapping becomes a factor. As the night goes on, these frat boys find things going from bad to worse, and one must wonder how in the world they’ll ever recover.
It seems like every year we hear some awful story about college partying gone wrong, though no one seems to attempt a dramatic interpretation of those types of events, at least not on the big screen. Director Will Canon and his co-writer Doug Simon have crafted a gritty and realistic tale that abandons the pre-conceived notions of what college life can be like. BROTHERHOOD is frat behavior gone wrong, and in the worst way. It’s also an incredibly intense film that grabs hold of you and relentlessly scares us at every turn. There’s a dark underlying humor here as well, as one can’t help but chuckle at the stupidity of certain college-influenced antics, and the increasingly terrible situations these guys find themselves in. The movie is an exercise in extremes, and filled with fantastic performances.
Trevor Morgan is the closest thing we get to a hero, trying ever so hard to be the voice of reason among the insanity. Hard to believe this is the kid from JURASSIC PARK III, as Morgan delivers a layered and intense portrayal of what could’ve been a one-note character. As he gets more and more stressed, we feel his pain, and wish things would somehow improve for him, even if that seems so unlikely.
Jon Foster is phenomenal as Frank, the overly determined frat leader, never giving in to fear or snap judgements. Frank wants things to stay within the house, for no one to catch wind of anything, no matter what the consequences. You hate the guy, but have to admire his determination. He’s like every pompous and annoying frat guy you’ve ever met, ramped up to a scary level of focus. This is not a fella you want to be around, much less under the control of. Foster is exceptional is his line delivery, and belongs in the annals of college movie history.
Arlen Escarpeta has come a long way from his days on AMERICAN DREAMS, the Dick Clark 1960’s era television series he first caught my attention with. As Mike, he spends much of the movie on the receiving end of hate and abusive actions, and it’s heartbreaking to watch him go through it. But Arlen sells the action, making you feel for him, and amplifying the overall mood of the storyline. It’s a tricky part, but he does it ever so well.
Perhaps one of the most thankless and difficult role goes to Lou Taylor Pucci as Kevin. He spends almost the entire film writhing in pain from a bullet wound, crying out for help and hoping someone will make the suffering end. This kind of role can be kryptonite to an actor, if they’re not up to the challenge. Pucci proves he’s got the chops to be convincing, and make the audience live vicariously through him. It’s his pain that defines the entire film, and the unravelling of these young men’s lives. Considering how little actual dialogue he has, I found what he was saying emotionally to be memorable and highly effective.
There are nice but brief supporting performances from other actors in the film, including Jennifer Sipes as the drunken partygoer who increases the tension for our stars, and Katherine VanderLinden as an unwitting girl victimized by the worst elements of the frat party. All of the casting choices are spot on and well-played. This is a superb effort by everyone involved, and one of the most memorable thrillers I’ve seen in recent years. But when you consider the modest budget the film was made for, it really becomes an astonishing achievement in this day of tired sequels and remakes. BROTHERHOOD is a film you shouldn’t just hear about, but go see for yourself. It will have you on the edge of your seat until the very end… at which point it might just knock you out of it.