The Skulls

Directed by Rob Cohen
Starring: Joshua Jackson, Paul Walker, Leslie Bibb, Craig T. Nelson, Hill Harper, William Petersen, Steve Harris, Christopher McDonald.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and brief sexuality.

Review by Matt Heffernan
April 4, 2000

I must say that I never had a single inclination to join any fraternities or other such groups in college. To me, the idea of paying dues or going through some humiliating ritual to have a loyal cadre of friends is just alien. Yet for some reason, this cycle continues. Its most devious form is the "secret society" -- something that actually exists at certain prestigious universities. At Yale, there is the Skull and Bones society, which counts both President George Bush and Little "Dubya" among its alumni. So, is the new film The Skulls a leftist jab at Ivy League elitism during the current election, or just another silly teen thriller? I bet you can guess which one.

At an unnamed Ivy League university in Connecticut, which starts with a "Y" and calls their athletic teams the Bulldogs (how coy!), Luke McNamara (Joshua Jackson) is struggling to cover his tuition and living costs. He is a local kid, who used his intelligence and rowing skills to get admitted, that has to deal with the rich kids that surround him. He is somewhat popular and respected on campus, and an opportunity arrives that is impossible to refuse: join the "Skulls" society and have his education -- including admittance and tuition for Harvard Law School -- paid for by the society's members.

Luke's roommate, Will (Hill Harper), is shocked by his willingness to enter the Skulls. Will steals a key to their ritual room from Caleb Mandrake (Paul Walker) -- the son of Skulls chairman Judge Litten Mandrake (Craig T. Nelson) -- to take some photographs for a newspaper exposť. Afterwards, he is found dead in his room, apparently from hanging himself. Luke learns from Detective Sparrow (Steve Harris) that Will had a contusion on the back of his head. Luke now suspects Caleb and the rest of the society of murder, but it seems that trying to defy the Skulls is futile.

One could make a decent thriller of this murder mystery, but it seems that few people involved with The Skulls knew how to. There are some moments where a glimmer of redemption is visible, only to be followed by more ridiculousness. Director Rob Cohen attempts to have an interesting look and feel to the film. He'll take dramatic pans in different directions, and shoot from extreme angles to show off elaborate sets, but the story and the dialogue (provided by U.S. Marshals scribe John Pogue) don't support the film.

The young members of the cast, culled mostly from television, play their silly roles with earnest determination, since this film is probably quite deep by their standards. Nelson, Harris, and the other "grown-ups" in the film likely realize the preposterous exaggeration in their roles, but they still put in a decent effort. I might have even liked this film if I didn't start laughing at it by the last twenty minutes. Maybe it is bad enough to be good, but it's not worth $8 to find out.

I'd also like to think that the first hypothesis was correct. To think that anything remotely resembling this occurs in America is horrific. Why can't kids just have fun, like in Animal House? Kill a horse, destroy a parade, you know? Just a few harmless laughs. Hmmm... now I'm starting to wonder what this film would have been like if John Landis had directed. It might have been funny on purpose.

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The Skulls (2000)

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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan