‘Skulls’ a Not-So-Smart Thriller About Elitism, Secret Societies


“If it’s secret and elite, it can’t be good.”

Those words of warning come about 30 minutes into “The Skulls,” but any moviegoer with a pulse will have suspected as much from the first frames.

This junior thriller from director Rob Cohen comes across as “The Firm” turned into a very special episode of “Dawson’s Creek.” Its underlying theme of the perils of elitism is never really dealt with and it contains, perhaps, one pinkie-toe bone of surprise in its skeleton of cliche.

New Haven townie Luke McNamara (Joshua Jackson), a senior and captain of the rowing team, is tapped for membership in the most selective of the secret societies at Yale. Membership looks like the key to success--they’ll pay for law school, give him connections among the East Coast power brokers.


All that changes after the mysterious suicide of Luke’s roommate and best friend, Will (Hill Harper), the same person who issued the warning about the secret and elite.

As created by screenwriter John Pogue, the characters are each of a type. Luke, the climber who has neglected his friends on the wrong side of the tracks. Will, the nosy student journalist. Chloe (Leslie Bibb), the wealthy socialite non-character. Caleb (Paul Walker), the second-generation Skull who can’t live up to his father. They also all live in “dorm rooms” that would be suitable for ballroom dancing.

The Skulls are loosely based on Skull and Bones--one of five well-known secret societies at Yale. It counts among its inductees former President George Bush and aspiring president Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Or at least in this case, more interesting. The real group dates back hundreds of years and has been suspected by the conspiracy-minded of trying to impose a New World Order.

“The Skulls” has pretensions of seriousness. One professor asks if America is a meritocracy or ruled by the wealthy elite. Such questions drop from scrutiny in favor of a campus cover-up. But then, who would expect a serious critique of elitism from filmmakers who--their biographies point out--went to Harvard and Yale?

“The Skulls” instead is simply more fuel for the hot-burning teen market bonfire, and it’ll likely serve that purpose for Universal Studios. As a breakout role for WB star Jackson, “The Skulls” doesn’t fare as well. Not that he’s untalented; the material just doesn’t take him far enough from the shores of TV’s “Dawson’s Creek.”


Director Cohen, who also made “Daylight” and “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” seems to think subtext would be lost on his under-22 audience--and that hurts his actors as well. In the more adult roles, Craig T. Nelson as the head Skull and William Petersen as a senator come off as more marionettes than flesh-and-bone humans. Cohen keeps the plot, as predictable as it may be, moving right along, but veers away from what could have been a truly dark ending.

Director of photography Shane Hurlbut gives the whole film a hazy, golden glow. That may be fitting for the ideal-Ivy-League-college opening, but it grows increasingly at odds with the dark plot. But give credit to him, Cohen and editor Peter Amundson for cutting together what may be the only exciting crew race in a movie this year.

* MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence and brief sexuality. Times guidelines: generally violent but not bloody; fistfights, suicide, shootings.

‘The Skulls’

Joshua Jackson: Luke McNamara

Paul Walker: Caleb Mandrake

Hill Harper: Will Beckford

Leslie Bibb: Chloe

Craig T. Nelson: Litten Mandrake

From Universal Pictures in association with Original Film/Newmarket Capital Group. Producers Neal H. Moritz and John Pogue. Director Rob Cohen. Executive producers William Tyrer, Chris J. Ball and Bruce Mellon. Co-producer Fred Caruso. Writer John Pogue. Composer Randy Edelman. Director of photography Shane Hurlbut. Production designer Bob Ziembicki. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

In general release.