Countless stories have been relayed over the years of the dangers of hazing on college campuses — cautionary tales of students suffering various kinds of humiliation and abuse over the pledging process, or of accidents leading to meaningless deaths robbing bright potential scholars of their futures. Cinematically, their potential has largely remained untapped, even though the psychology behind the rigidness of such cultures has been ripe for the taking; the clash between the need to belong at such a young age and the arduous cruelty often associated with such rituals, and what that reveals about both the people who subject themselves to them, as well as the people in charge of running them.
That’s not to say that the film world has lived in a drought of amusing or genre-subversive glances at university Greek life and culture. Documentaries like Bama Rush have served as more direct portrayals, comedies like Animal House have made reckless exaggerations of said culture, major works like The Social Network have incorporated Greek life as a fairly significant part of their more all-encompassing portrayals of a particular college experience, while films like Julia Ducournau’s Raw and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas have reframed them through particular genre conceits or particular storytelling devices. Rare is the film, however, that chooses to depict the bleakness of Greek life and hazing so straightforwardly — but here is where Ethan Berger’s confidently assured, unsettlingly cerebral directorial debut, The Line, finally enters.
The Line circles the cinematic tradition of depicting life in a fraternity straight back to the bleak headlines and tales of abuse that occur within these institutions — a cerebral character study whose contained narrative scope works in a variety of airtight ways for a surprisingly effective story. At the center of this film is Tom (Alex Wolff), a sophomore who enters this new phase of his life in the fictional Kappa Nu Alpha fraternity in an unspecified southern university with a fair amount of uncertainty about what it is he wants to achieve, even as he elaborately presents himself as someone deeply engaged in fraternity life, armed with a “faux Forrest Gump accent” for further macho effect, and in good standing with the hierarchies of KNU. In a conversation with his mother (Cheri Oteri) towards the beginning of the film, it’s clear that he’s not really prioritizing schoolwork — he says as much himself, emphasizing the value of relationships as the main reason for his going to college, a statement that understandably and quickly draws his mother’s ire.
Kappa Nu Alpha is undergoing a new round of pledging — in other words, the fraternity’s own process of bringing in new recruits and deciding whom among a slew of prospective applicants actually belong in the “family” they’ve established. In their words, this is a tradition that they’ve been upholding for the better part of centuries, with their legacy including several influential presidents, and it’s up to the new pledges vying for a spot in KNU to prove their worth as someone who belongs in the insular community they’ve forged. But as is the case with such staunchly enforced tradition, conflict and pushback to it slowly begins to emerge all around the periphery of Tom’s life. His ascent in the ranks of KNU, motivated by its current president, Todd Stevens (Lewis Pullman), begins to be marred by the unfettered grudge that his boisterous, entitled roommate, Mitch (Bo Mitchell) — himself the son of Beach Miller (John Malkovich), the CEO of a major conglomerate — has out for one of the pledges, Gettys O’Brien (Austin Abrams), and one that Mitch doesn’t seem too willing to let go of anytime soon. On top of that, Tom begins forming a genuine connection with one of his classmates, Annabelle Bascom (Halle Bailey), that quickly turns romantic, conflicting with the hyper-masculine norms set up for him by those in KNU. As everything around Tom begins to escalate in intensity and viciousness, everything suddenly comes to a shocking head… and Tom is forced to reckon with the consequences of what exactly it is he’s gotten himself involved into.
One of the most impressive things about The Line as a film is almost certainly Berger’s intense eye for atmosphere and how to wield it properly as a means of conveying a particular aesthetic. With Stefan Weinberger’s cinematography and its nearly-impeccable use of contrast and chiaroscuro for just about every nighttime scene set within the elaborately prod-designed KNU house itself (or the other locations of alcohol-fueled opulence scattered throughout the story), there’s not only a sense of murky grittiness that Berger decidedly infuses into every hedonistic party or hazing sequence, but also one of genuine dread as the risks involved only become clearer by the second. Renowned multi-instrumentalist Daniel Rossen also takes the helms as the film’s composer, fresh off the heels of his score for Celine Song’s excellent Past Lives — giving The Line an auditory sense of propulsion and tension driven by guitars, electronic instruments, and other such combinations. All of this makes for an experience that is as sensorially engaging as it is entertaining, even if much of the momentum slightly stalls as the film grows ever nearer to its end.
With Alex Wolff serving as The Line‘s narrative center and the anchor for its incredible ensemble cast, it’s hardly any wonder why Tom is as engaging a character to follow over the course of the film. Having steadily built himself up with incredibly robust work in films like Hereditary and Pig, Wolff demonstrates yet again the intensely exciting potential and skill he currently possesses as a lead performer, with the steady range of emotions and experiences that Tom goes through all convincingly expressed, and with not a single facet of his character seeming out of place — his young-blood elation and harrowing dread all stand alike. And while the supporting characters surrounding Tom — portrayed solidly by the likes of Lewis Pullman and Euphoria star Angus Cloud — are all mostly there to represent one-note traits that ramp up in intensity over the course of the story, that’s not to say they aren’t mostly distinct, either. Bo Mitchell in particular stands out as a virulently committed performance as Mitch, bringing out the character’s absolutely venomous petulance to intense effect in a variety of scenes, making Mitch simultaneously deeply pitiable and a sincerely dreaded presence. It’s only a shame that Halle Bailey seems to be the most underutilized of the bunch, having only received a small batch of short scenes to appear in, especially given that her character and the more politically inclined outsider perspective she appears to bring could have made for an interesting additional layer to the film’s pointed commentary on the insular nature of KNU’s “family.”
For what it’s worth, The Line feels like a relative breath of fresh air, ripping its premise straight from the bleakest of headlines about the real-life dangers of hazing in Greek life and treating those dangers with the weight they deserve, while also providing an engaging enough angle on the nigh-indoctrinatory nature of the traditions associated with these fraternities and the paradoxically hedonistic ruthlessness through which its students uphold them. As a result, the volatility and toxic masculinity on display in this film never quite feels like an exaggeration, and that is an incredibly delicate balance to strike. Every single character involved in KNU is complicit in its abuses’ upholding, and Berger never shies away from that fact with each passing moment of The Line‘s narrative up until everything reaches a head — a climax that many might find predictable, but all will still find relatively shocking in its execution and delivery. The vastness of the cast also serves to provide different angles on how such harmful macho-isms are upheld in the first place; some with stern bureaucracy with the university’s administration, some with constant internal conflict and self-contradictory presentations, and others with recklessly inebriated harm inflicted on others.
But such an already thorough inquiry into the nature of fraternities and the abuses many of them commit only opens up further curiosities about other such systematized issues that linger within their workings, many of which The Line still alludes to but never quite expands upon. Troublingly white supremacist-adjacent racial dynamics, inherently baked misogyny and queerphobia, and deeply classist attitudes are just among the many things that plague incoming pledges and current members of these fraternities alike, and it doesn’t remain completely out of the realm of possibility for The Line to have potentially evolved into something with sincerely gnashing bite had it invested more energy into examining their contributions to the abuses it depicts. Regardless, however, Berger’s talents as a filmmaker are already on full display with the robust, clinical, tense work he’s crafted with The Line, and it’s difficult to imagine how he could have gone wrong with this timely portrayal of the underbellies of university life with such a solid foundation of a cast and crew to work off of.