Written by: Christine Berg, Gerard McMurray
Directed by: Gerard McMurray
Starring: Trevor Jackson, Alfre Woodard, Trevante Rhodes, Steve Harris
My rating is simple, Watch It, It Depends, Skip it. Read my previous movie reviews!
A pledge has to decide whether to honor his vow of silence to his fraternity or expose the underground hazing.
How much abuse will people suffer to be part of the group? While the frat scenes feels authentic, there were a couple of scenes that needed some work. I also wanted this to go further than hazing still happens and it can have severe consequences. The end of the movie doesn't answer any questions, leaving a lot unresolved. It's not a surprise hazing has unintended consequences, but I wanted a hint at what happens next.
It's easy to compare this to Goat (2016) (read my review), another fraternity hazing movie. Burning Sands focuses on why people pledge and how they just want to be part of a group. Goat focuses on how easy it is to haze people when you don't really know them, while trying to define what it means to be a man. I liked Goat more because it went a little deeper with more nuance. That story looked at trauma and the post traumatic stress it causes. Burning Sands doesn't go past how hazing can get out of hand.
From the start you realize Lambda Lambda Phi is extreme. The brothers are branded on their arms or chest, sometimes both, with the lambda symbol. We later see a brother getting branded with a coat hanger, but there's no way that can produce the brand with the serifs the others have. Is he going to be disappointed when his brand is indecipherable? Doesn't the frat have a ceremonial brand somewhere?
From the start you know where this is going. It's going to end up with hazing gone too far. Is it a cycle of frat brothers wanting to give it worse than they got it? Pledges are willing to endure a lot of abuse for the potential of social standing. While the rules of the frat are leadership, scholarship, and compassion and the pledges recite it often, we never see the embodiment of those characteristics. That's the point. It's just hollow words when you're wailing on people with a paddle. It's just a boys club with a fancy name, and the members are just school yard bullies.
You don't want to make the brotherhood easy to obtain, but the process just seems unnecessary especially when the frat is thwarting the rules. It's not like any of their hazing is even clever. It's violence for the sake of it. At least Goat had some clever pranks as part of hazing. Goat used a fraternity to frame how one person deals with trauma and how it blankets life. Burning Sands frames the people in the frats, and by extension the frat system itself, as corrupt.
Trevor Jackson does a good job, but he has a few scenes that are just a few lines short of being believable. One is with a rival pledge where they make nice. I get the scene's purpose, but it needed a few more lines to make it believable. Z's paper he writes for his professor is laughable. He regurgitates quotes she's provided him, and when he slips it under her office door at 8 P.M., she's still there and reads it immediately. It's a placeholder scene that needed to polished, or removed.
He approaches the Dean of Academics about the hazing, intimating it's gone too far. I don't know if the Dean realizes hazing is going on or not. He seems to realize and embrace it, but that's at odds with the sanctions implied. It isn't clear whether he thinks Z is whining or whether he doesn't realize what's really going on. I really wanted the Dean to show up on "Hell Night" just to reinforce how pervasive the behavior and culture is. It could be a theory on why the culture hasn't diminished. That doesn't happen though.
"Hell Night" is the culmination of the movie. It's needlessly violent which is entirely the reason for the scene, but I began to wonder when we'd get to the point. It's not long until we arrive, but the ending is left unresolved. There's just a bit too much speculation. What does Z do next? What does the school do? What happens to the frat? I don't necessarily want it all spelled out, but just a push in some direction. Does the frat continue on or do they get a slap on the wrist? Does the culminating event change Z's mind on whether to pledge?