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The Skulls

Review by Joe Barlow
Posted 31 March 2000

Directed by Rob Cohen

Starring Joshua Jackson, 
Leslie Bibb, Hill Harper, 
Craig T. Nelson, Paul Walker

Written by John Pogue

Rob Cohen's The Skulls sums up everything that is both right and wrong with contemporary thrillers: it boasts a wonderfully creepy atmosphere, courtesy of the spectacular sets and lighting, which drench every scene in a thick Gothic cloak like something out of an Anne Rice novel. At the same time, however, the convoluted plot sleepwalks towards its laughably silly climax with so little energy that the film seems to have given up on itself long before the audience has. Does anyone out there truly believe that the events in this story would be best resolved with -- of all things -- a duel at ten paces? Didn't think so.

Lucas McNamara (Joshua Jackson) is a student at a prestigious Ivy League school. A champion rower who is well liked by everyone, Lucas is nonetheless struggling with a bleak financial situation that will almost certainly prevent him from attending law school. To make matters worse, he is starting to fall in love with his friend Chloe (Leslie Bibb), though he fears that she will never consider him "good enough" for her.

Lucas' only hope is to be accepted into The Skulls, an elite secret society which, according to rumors, handles every financial obligation of its members. After Lucas is initiated into the club, his life improves: he hob-nobs with the cream of society, he is constantly surrounded by beautiful women, and a surprise gift of $20,000 finds its way into his bank account. Life couldn't be better... until, that is, Lucas' best friend, Will Beckford (Hill Harper), dies mysteriously. Will was a journalist, working on a story about The Skulls. Are the two events related? Lucas isn't sure, but the untimely passing of his friend forces him to reconsider the benefits of belonging to a group whose membership must be kept secret at all costs.

Opening with blue-tinted shots which foreshadow the film's dark tone, The Skulls follows the usual cliches, depicting anything "secret" or "elite" as evil. Does paranoia really run rampant in all secret societies? I doubt it, but the tone is nonetheless appropriate to the story, and I'll let it pass. The film truly does feel like a paranoid delusion, and this feeling of unease is well-crafted by director Cohen and screenwriter John Pogue, who escalate crisis after crisis with considerable skill. Even after you're sure you know where the story is going, there's always a new twist, a new tangent. Best of all is the scene in which Lucas instills unrest and dissent into the ranks of his fellow Skulls... by forcing them to adhere to their own code of honor. Great stuff!

But the film loses itself -- and the audience -- by refusing to pay attention to detail. At times, the movie seems like a little kid who has told so many lies that he can no longer remember the truth. It's made clear, for example, that surveillance tapes of the Skull meetings are placed in a storage vault every day, at both ten a.m. and ten p.m., on the dot. So why does one scene depicting this act look as though it was shot at twilight? How did Lucas and his friends have the foresight to plan a seemingly random ambush in an alley? This lack of attention is also present in the film's editing: have a peek at the bathroom love scene between Lucas and Chloe, which looks like it was shot several months after the rest of the film (and it may have been, knowing how studios often insist on inserting "steamy" material in teenager-themed films). Look carefully and you'll see that the background scenery in this particular scene doesn't quite match from shot to shot.

The Skulls is a semi-fun diversion, but it doesn't offer enough variety or depth to transcend its genre. If you don't mind an occasional cinematic Twinkie -- and can overlook plot holes big enough to fly an airplane through -- then you may have a good time.

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