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The Skulls

Director: Rob Cohen
Cast: Joshua Jackson, Paul Walker, Hill Harper, Leslie Bibb, William Petersen, Craig T. Nelson

(Universal; 2000)

Leaders of the Future

There is creative genius behind The Skulls. Someone, somehow, managed to pull together a pretty intriguing trailer for this thriller. And that, to me, deserves high praise, because, in its entirety, the film is decidedly un-thrilling, not to mention completely lacking in intrigue. However, this is not a review of awe-inspiring editing techniques or promotional and marketing strategies.


The Skulls is an appallingly bad film on many levels, including its stilted acting, over-the-top set design, and ludicrous plot: I really don’t think I’m overreacting here: people were walking out of the theater, laughing at all the “wrong” moments (i.e., all the time), and literally booing by the time this film finally ended. But this doesn’t mean that it wasn’t trying to say something. I’m just not sure the team who created The Skulls — including writer John Pogue and director Rob Cohen — meant to say what they ultimately did.


An opening epigraph sets up the ostensible conflict: “Every year at certain Ivy League colleges, an elite group of students is chosen to join Secret Societies. Unlike fraternities, these Societies conceal their actions as they mold the leaders of the future. At least three U.S. Presidents are known to have been members. The most powerful Secret Society has always been…. (cue eerie music, fade-in ghostly lettering) “The SKULLS.” This wordy, melodramatic exposition lays the ground for the film’s moralistic premise, namely, it pits these rich, powerful, monolithic social organizations (read: evil) against the relatively poor but extraordinary Everyman (read: good).


This intro also indicates the film’s overall style, which is full of simplistic visual cues giving a quick gloss on the characters and leaving out any actual character development. See our hero, Luke (Joshua Jackson), running to his crew race in his socks and riding his beat-up old bike around campus. See his perky and fashionable blond best friend and inevitable love interest, Chloe (Leslie Bibb), cheering him on while perched atop her BMW. And then there’s Will (Hill Harper), one of the film’s two black characters, smart, working-class, the third best friend of the trio, and therefore, we realize immediately, utterly doomed.


The plot doesn’t move much beyond these character types. Luke is a scholarship- and student-work-dependent but brilliant student/orphan at an affluent college, aspiring to attend law school but daunted by the exorbitant costs. He is in love with Chloe, but knows he would never be accepted in her world. After all, he explains to Will, “Chloe’s family owns a private jet. I’ve never been on a jet.” Luke also aspires to be “tapped” by the Skulls, a supposedly secret society that ensures success to its members through its wealth and connections. The film asks us to believe that Luke, at least initially, looks at the Skulls merely as a means to an end, a source to bankroll his law school studies. But it is soon apparent to everyone except Luke that his motivations are less about scholastic achievement than they are about crossing over into the world of the moneyed, the influential, and the well-connected.


Apparently, the Skulls are the most well-known/worst-kept secret on campus. While a not-so-secret society may be an acceptable premise in itself, it leads to silly plot turns and images. For instance, when the trio, Luke, Chloe, and Will, are walking across school grounds one night talking about the Skulls, they pass a medieval-looking building, no lights in the windows. As Chloe finishes her story of dating a member of the Skulls (when she asked if he was a member, he left her and she never heard from him again), they all look up at the building, which we now see has a huge metal skull weather vane on top of it. I suppose a flashing neon sign reading “Secret Society Meetings Held Here” would have been more obvious than a skull weather vane, but the effect is pretty much the same.


Luke is “tapped” by the Skulls and is assigned a Soul Mate named Caleb Mandrake (Paul Walker), whose creepy father Litten Mandrake (Craig T. Nelson) is a high-ranking Skull council member. The ambitious Luke appeals to Litten Mandrake, whose own son is relatively unmotivated and easily influenced (especially by his Dad). In turn, the Skulls’ sense of loyalty and fraternity, and particularly Litten Mandrake’s attention, appeals to fatherless Luke. In no time at all, we’ve got trouble: Luke has changed. He now has money and a new car, compliments of the Skulls (flashbacks to The Firm here), and he is no longer open with Will and Chloe and they resent it — especially Will. He and Luke fight and are estranged. Finally, Luke can’t take not having his friend anymore, so he goes to talk to him, only to find that he has hung himself.


As it turns out, Will was writing an expose on the Skulls and (surprise, surprise) his corpse has a skull contusion, according to the autopsy report. As Detective Sparrow points out (Steve Harris), “Most people who commit suicide don’t have contusions like they hit themselves in the head with a sledge hammer.” Sounds suspicious.


What follows is generic Scooby-Doo mystery stuff, as Luke, Chloe, and Luke’s stereotypically low-rent friends from his self-professed “misspent youth,” set out to find Will’s killer. We know from the beginning that the virtuous Luke, though he may momentarily flounder, will ultimately expose the killer and go his own way. It may be the film’s only cleverness that Luke manages to do so without violating the rules of secrecy, loyalty, and honor that the Skulls demand. Some of these maneuverings on Luke’s part are downright painful to watch. He actually has a good old fashioned nineteenth-century style duel, replete with antique pistols delivered by tuxedoed butlers. His opponent, too, wears a tuxedo, while Luke is back to his pre-Skulls duds, jeans and a T-shirt — it’s The Age of Innocence meets The Outsiders.


Still, the film’s ending is less typical or wholesome than one expect, considering how unimaginative most of the plot details are. The ultimate message is less “Do the right thing” than it is “Do the right thing, especially if you can ultimately benefit from it.” As Luke’s mentor, Ames Leveritt (William Petersen), tells him, “I taught you to make the world work for you.” While much of The Skulls is laughable (it might not have been had the film been vaguely self-conscious or not taken itself so seriously), its treatment of race and racism, through the characters Will and Detective Sparrow, is anything but. Detective Sparrow is little more than a lackey for the bad guys. And the stated excuse for Will’s murder and hanging is telling: “Will Beckford broke into a car — he’s a thief, and he trespassed where he didn’t belong.” That is, the Skulls are a lynch mob. Though class conflict appears to be the film’s focus, racism is here revealed as the real secret scourge in the upper echelons of society: the fear of blacks “trespassing where [they] don’t belong” provokes strong, even violent, reactions from privileged whites. But the good whites — like our point of identification, young Luke — can still rest assured that they’re free of culpability.

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