Skulls, The

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

“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

Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts