The Skulls Is No Brotherhood of the Bell

Chatterbox last night saw The Skulls, the new movie thriller about a thinly disguised Skull & Bones, the secret society at Yale. (To read Chatterbox’s earlier items about the movie and its antecedents, click here and here and here.) The Skulls turns out to be a lousy movie–so bad, in fact, that it provoked frequent bursts of laughter from the college kids rounded up by a local radio station to watch it at the sneak preview Chatterbox attended. Chatterbox thinks The Skulls has little chance of becoming a cult favorite to the right-wing militia crowd that has embraced The Brotherhood of the Bell, a far more skillful Bones-inspired thriller made for television in 1970. (The Brotherhood of the Bell is not available on video, but it turns up on late-night TV now and then, and various right-wing Web sites peddle what appear to be bootleg copies.) Because The Skulls is so dreadful, Chatterbox, plumbing it for socio-political significance, feels free to divulge its plot in some detail; much of this information is already available on the film’s own Web site. (In the unlikely case you mind having the story ruined for you, don’t read any further.)

As the film begins, Yale junior Luke McNamara (Joshua Jackson) is being watched by two mysterious young men while he captains the varsity crew team. (The college in question is never identified, but it’s in the Ivy League, reference is made to a local eatery called Mory’s, and members of the crew team wear blue outfits with the letter “Y” and answer to the name “Bulldogs.” Although it was filmed somewhere else, Chatterbox will go out on a limb here and guess the setting is Yale.) Luke is a star pupil; when asked, during a classroom discussion of C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite, whether America distributes wealth based on merit or class, he observes correctly that the winners in the school-based meritocratic footrace acquire class privilege. It’s especially important that Luke do well in this footrace, because he’s a motherless New Haven townie who slings hash in the cafeteria to make ends meet. Luke plans to go to Harvard Law School, but worries about the crushing debt that seven years of student loans will incur. He tells his black roommate, Will Beckford (Hill Harper), that the solution is to join the Skulls, the superelite college secret society that guarantees its members stupendous wealth and power. Beckford, an idealist who writes for the school paper and dreams of becoming Bob Woodward (Yale ‘65), urges Luke not to join: “If it’s secret and it’s elite, it can’t be good.” Luke and Will’s upstairs dorm neighbor Chloe (Leslie Bibb), a pretty blond graduate of Miss Porter’s School who has an out-of-sight rich daddy but is real folks just the same, doesn’t want Luke to join the Skulls, either. But the Skulls have already singled Luke out; that’s why the two mysterious young men were watching him row.

Luke is tapped to join the Skulls. A phone call directs him to a classroom where a glass of clear liquid and an Alice in Wonderland-ish “drink me” sign await him. He drinks it, falls to the ground unconscious, and awakens, simultaneously with the other initiates, in one of many coffins resting on round lily-pad-like platforms in a vast and watery medieval chamber. Upperclassmen wearing spooky red hooded robes ask the initiates, “Are you ready to be reborn?” They brand the initiates with hot pokers on their wrists (click here to learn why this is a dig at George W. Bush) and cover the markings with expensive new watches. Each initiate also gets a convertible. When Luke goes to his ATM machine, he discovers that $20,000 has been added to his bank account.

The initiates are instructed to steal the mascot of a rival secret society–a weathervane sculpted in the form of a snake atop a Gothic tower surrounded by a moat. Luke scales the tower with Caleb Mandrake (Paul Walker), a snooty and insecure WASP aristocrat who previously dissed him on the cafeteria line. They bond and are assigned together as Skulls “soul mates.” (Unlike The Brotherhood of the Bell, where the homoerotic building block of the establishment is a relationship between an initiate and an older “senior,” The Skulls makes the male pairings between two initiates of the same age.) Caleb is the son of Litten Mandrake (Craig Nelson), chairman of the Skulls and on his way to becoming a Supreme Court justice.

Will and Luke have a serious falling-out over Luke’s hoity-toity new friends. (Will and Chloe both dislike Caleb.) Will quietly starts work on a journalism exposé of the Skulls. He breaks into Caleb’s car and steals Caleb’s Skulls clubhouse key and Skulls rulebook. Caleb follows Will to the Skulls clubhouse and demands that he return the key and the rulebook. Will tosses him the key but says he doesn’t have the rulebook with him. Caleb then demands that Will turn over his notes and the film in his camera. Will refuses. Later that night, Luke walks into Will’s room and finds him hanging by a rope, dead.

Although Will’s death was an apparent suicide, Luke and the police suspect foul play. Chloe tells Luke about Will’s secret investigation and asks Luke if Will’s death had anything to do with the Skulls. Luke, still bound by an oath of silence, refuses to answer. Chloe tells him off. Luke confronts Caleb during a Skulls ritual in which soul mates are supposed to reveal their innermost secrets; Caleb, obviously lying, denies having anything to do with Will’s death. Later, in the presence of Luke and father Litten, Caleb confesses that while he was trying to get Will’s notes and his camera, Will fell down and was killed. It was an accident! Litten hands Luke a sheaf of papers and says, “This is your pre-acceptance to the law school of your choice. … It’s all paid for.”

But Luke can’t be bought. He patches things up with Chloe by telling her what he knows. Chloe tells Luke she loves him. They have passionate sex. Luke then enlists Chloe and his townie friends (who are thieves) to help him retrieve a tape of Will’s death recorded by a Skulls security camera. On viewing the tape, they see that events unfolded as Caleb described, but that after Will’s fall, Caleb used a cell phone to call his father, who told him to leave the premises. Later, the tape shows, Lombard (Chris McDonald), the Yale university provost and chief Skulls henchman to Litten Mandrake, appeared on the scene, observed that Will was still alive, and broke his neck. It wasn’t an accident!

Luke takes the tape to the police, but Detective Sparrow (Steve Harris) switches it with a blank tape–he works for the Skulls too!--and Luke is declared insane and shipped off to a Skulls-controlled mental hospital, where he is rendered catatonic by drugs. Chloe breaks Luke out of the hospital, and the two are pursued by Lombard, who drives them off the road and is about to shoot them when he is shot by Sparrow. Sparrow actually works for one Skull in particular–Ames Levritt (William Peterson), a Virginia senator who secretly despises his Skulls soul mate, Litten Mandrake, and wants to help Luke. Luke breaks into the Skulls clubhouse, where $100,000 checks are being prepared for each initiate, and challenges Caleb to a duel; according to the rulebook, Caleb may not refuse. Pistols are produced. Luke and Caleb stand back to back, take their paces, turn around–then Luke drops his gun and begs Caleb to come clean. Caleb points his gun at Luke but can’t fire. Litten, outraged by his son’s lack of manly resolve, picks up a gun and aims it at Luke himself. But just before he fires, Caleb shoots him! While Litten, wounded in the shoulder, is tended to by other Skulls members, Caleb wanders off and prepares to shoot himself–but at the last minute, Luke tackles him and saves Caleb’s life! “It’s over, Caleb,” he says.

Sen. Levitt succeeds Litten as chairman of the Skulls. He asks Luke to stay in the organization. Luke politely declines: “Someone I loved once said, ‘If it’s secret and elite, it can’t be good.’ ” As Luke walks out of the clubhouse, Sen. Levitt murmers to himself, “Well done, son. Well done.” Luke goes off to start a new life with Chloe.

A note on ethnicity: In both The Skulls and The Brotherhood of the Bell, the striving protagonist who seeks to join the establishment (Luke McNamara; Phillip Dunning) is of Irish descent, while the defiant friend who fights and is ultimately killed by the establishment (Will Beckford; Dr. Constantin Horvathy) belongs to a more outsiderish ethnic group–Beckford is black, while Horvathy is apparently Jewish. Is this because an assimilating hero shedding a more pronounced ethnic identity like blackness or Jewishness would appear from the outset to be selling out? The ethnicity of the Irish is at this point so vestigial to anyone other than a superannuated Hibernian that it doesn’t pose this problem.

A note on hidden political meaning: Is it a coincidence that Luke’s last name of “McNamara” happens also to be the last name of a former defense secretary done in by an ill-considered faith in the establishment and its assurances that the United States would prevail in the Vietnam War? Discuss.

A note on social class and how to acquire it:Doesn’t it take Luke an awfully long time to figure out that it’s better to get rich by marrying a beautiful and rich graduate of Miss Porter’s School than it is to get rich by hanging out in a medieval fortress with murderous creeps? Duh!