Published March 1, 2000
The Skulls is a movie about a secret, all-male society at Yale which hardly even attempts to disguise the fact that it is based on Skull and Bones, an élite group whose membership is said to include both the George Bushes. So, too, “The Skulls” in the movie go around saying to each other “a skull above any other” (we may not know what this means, but it is clearly élitist), dress in white tie and are mainly the sons of rich parents. The society apparently has unlimited resources not only to reward these kids even more than birth and family have done, and to further their subsequent careers in surreptitious ways, but also to watch their every move and to punish any deviation from the society’s rigorous and entirely secret rules. I wonder if you can guess yet whether the movie is going to be for or against the Skulls?
Of course the question is absurd. The moral of the story is spelled out for an audience the film-makers obviously expect to be of limited intelligence: “If it’s secret and elite, it can’t be good.” These skulls are not only not above any other; their entire reason for existing is to be bashed in by this kind of moral and political heavy-handedness. The bludgeon, wielded by Rob Cohen, the director, and John Pogue, the screenwriter, even lands a typically Hollywoodish glancing blow on the pate of the U.S. government’s security services. When someone points out to the film’s hero, Luke McNamara (Joshua Jackson), that the CIA was founded within the precincts of the Skull clubhouse, he replies apologetically, “Yes they were, but back in World War II when they were still the good guys.”
Luke is a poor orphaned New Haven townie who has had a rough life. His best friends from childhood are now punk car thieves. They naturally turn out to be good guys. Having got into Yale by sheer talent and hard work (and the fact that he is a championship oarsman), Luke is tapped for membership in the Skulls at the same time that his best friend, a poor black kid called Will (Hill Harper) who aspires to a career in journalism, is working on an exposé of the society’s secrets. When Will is found hanged in his room, an apparent suicide, Luke and his girlfriend, Chloe (Leslie Bibb) begin to suspect foul play. The damning evidence seems to point to Luke’s Skull “soul mate,” Caleb Mandrake (Paul Walker).
But it is Caleb’s dad, a judge and aspiring Supreme Court justice called Litton Mandrake (Craig T. Nelson), who is the movie’s real but boring villain. Here’s a typical conversation between him and Luke when he thinks that Luke may still be corrupted by money and the easy ride through life that he has never known into joining in the society’s ongoing conspiracy to thwart the law: “This isn’t right,” says Luke.
“It may not be right, but it worked,” says Judge Mandrake. “Here’s your pre-acceptance to the law school of your choice,” he adds, handing him a paper.
“I haven’t applied to law school,” Luke the innocent replies.
“Imagine that.” And then, just in case we didn’t get the point: “I would do anything to protect you; I want you to do the same for me.”
Well, however tempted Luke may be by the offer — and, so far as we can see, he is never tempted for a single moment once he finds out the true nature of the Skulls — it doesn’t sound very tempting to us. Why should Luke want to go to the law school of his choice only to come out of it looking like this bozo? His boy Caleb is as dull as he is, and the fraternal bond, such as it is, between him and Luke or any other members of the society hardly seems much to sacrifice. Evil itself here lacks the imagination to lust after or enjoy anything but money and a certain social prestige. Small wonder that it fails to seduce our square-jawed hero.
As a result, the movie swiftly becomes nothing but another of those paranoid fantasies that Hollywood cranks out like sausages. “They control everything!” wails Luke. “Everything we do.” And they do too. The bad guys are always watching the good guys and keeping voluminous records on them, in the form of videotapes. The good guys must evade this surveillance and then smash the conspiracy by — you’ll never guess — using a provision of the Skulls’ own rulebook for Luke to challenge Caleb to a duel! “A challenge may be presented and gentlemanly means pursued,” says the book, and the next thing you know Luke in a T-shirt is facing down Caleb (and Caleb’s dad) in white tie and tails with an 18th century dueling pistol in his hand.
No prizes for guessing how it comes out. But all I could think of as I watched was the starkness of the visual contrast between scruffy T-shirt of the hero and the white tie and immaculate shirt front of the villains. A whole gang of them. Though they had given me little enough reason to be on their side, even against a goody-goody like Luke, their sartorial elegance finally won me over. Let’s see, T-shirt against white tie — whom shall we root for? Come on white tie!