I had never seen an American TV movie before, and after watching “Secret Society of Lies,” I realized why they never fell onto the radar of an avid binge-watcher like me. There is no more polite way of putting this than to say that the film needed a lot of improvement in probably every department. It is like a tedious 19th-century Dickens novel that explains everything to you, and at the beginning of every new page, you have to resist the urge to give it up, leaving it half-read. In its nascent stage, while being conceived on paper, the idea must have sounded very interesting. But the poor execution makes you stumble on a hot mess.
The dramatic irony was created to maintain tension in a plot and to make the audience know certain extra details that gave them an upper hand over the characters in the film. It is expected that when things are revealed to the protagonists, they will react or show some kind of shock or surprise according to the demands of the situation. Here, the reactions are very matter-of-fact. It is hard to discern what is worse, the writing or the acting. An IMDb user commented in their review that all the actors had given stale performances. But it should also be noted that the characters on the paper are, in fact, very two-dimensional. The TV movie doesn’t let the audience challenge their intellect. At the end of the film, we find a journalist who just blames patriarchy for all the heinous crimes against women on the campus at Payton University. Well, if the film has to point out the problem that caused the crisis in the first place, then what does that leave for the medium of cinema to convey? The topic can be easily explained using the medium of a video essay.
Here, we should back up a little and delve a little deeper and undertake the analysis of the plot. This will help us understand what the plot was trying to convey through the cinematic apparatus. The film’s protagonist, Chrissy (played by Kristen Vaganos), who is a scholarship student at Payton University, gets marked by a secret brotherhood named the Sons of Orion. These “Sons of Orion” are supposed to be a bunch of elite students from the fraternity named Orion on Payton’s campus. They have an elaborate initiation process that includes painting a target on a naive and innocent girl and then physically violating her. The newest member earns a spot in the elite club only when they share their photo of the girl in a violated position. Incidentally, these are all students who are included in Dean Malcolm Martell’s list. Malcolm Martel is played by Justin Berti.
After Chrissy learns that she was targeted by these men, she tries to reach out to the police but is immediately discouraged from doing so by Nathan Martel (played by Lucas Charles Stafford), who states that she ought not to involve the police because Chrissy’s drink was laced at a party with drugs and obviously there was a lot of underage drinking involved on campus. Chrissy is not aware of the fact that he is also a part of the Sons of Orion. Nathan suggests that they take up the matter with his father, Dean. The Dean reassures Chrissy and her mother, Nora (played by Kate Schettler), who used to go to school with Malcolm, that he would look into the issue and disclose the perpetrator. Chrissy, who is a brilliant student and a very intelligent young girl, convinces her friend Sarah (played by Azizi Donnelly) to run a blog post on the campus portal that includes a picture of Chrissy’s neck, which had been branded by the secret Orion mark. The blog post does exactly what Chrissy wanted it to do.
Three senior students come forth and report being violated in a similar manner. In the meantime, Chrissy’s debate partner Ryan (played by Ian S. Peterson), who was responsible for donning his 16th-century plague mask, blurts out the secret in a public area. His conversation with his fellow brother Edwin (played by Keishwan Pinkston) in their cult-like club is overheard by Chrissy. She rushes to the Dean to report Ryan. But the Dean brushes the report under the carpet. At this point, Chrissy’s helplessness can be sympathetically realized by the viewers. In the very next act of the film, the viewer becomes privy to the information that the Sons of Orion are a group of elite male and female students on campus who are under the protection of the Dean himself. Their indecent activities are only a medium for dragging out the imbalance of power that has persisted among the binaries of men and women, the rich and poor.
The Dean takes up the role of the literal patriarch and passes judgment for punishing Ryan, whose conscience forces him to come clean about his crime. He is murdered on the Dean’s command by Edwin, who is asked to frame his murder as a suicide. Chrissy, suspicious about Ryan’s sudden death, asks Nathan if they could check the security footage of the auditorium where Ryan’s body was found hanging from the ceiling. Meanwhile, Chrissy’s mother, Nora, refreshes her memories from school and remembers that her friend Alison Cho, who was also attacked by the Sons of Orion, went missing after she disclosed that the group of boys who were carrying out these heinous crimes were actually underserving of their seats at the university and had only paid their way into college. Nathan is instructed by his father to keep Chrissy at bay so that she doesn’t disclose the presence of a secret society to either the police or the media.
The problem crops up at a different place. Chrissy and Nathan fall in love with each other. As Chrissy visits Nathan’s room in the hostel, she discovers a plague mask similar to the one Ryan was wearing during her attack. Nathan explains that every member of House Orion and their fraternity have a similar mask. Chrissy is unconvinced and engages her friend Sarah’s help, who is a journalist, in the making. She, in turn, calls up the local TV news outlet. In order to scare Sarah off, Dean Martel asks Edwin to employ his horror gimmicks, and they work in their favor as Sarah, now extremely scared, rushes back home, leaving the story untold. Chrissy, too, is blackmailed by Nathan and Edwin through a trick video that shows Nathan in danger.
Everything boils down to an ultimate showdown between Chrissy and Malcolm Martel. But unlike the picture that had been painted for Nathan, he suddenly assumes the role of a hero and remembers how much Chrissy loved him. He attacks his father until the police finally arrest Dean for all the crimes he has managed to commit over the years. The film had the excellent premise of showing how toxic fraternity culture could be. This problem of oppressive and exploitative masculine dominance, which can simply be called patriarchy, extends well beyond a single generation. This has been internalized and hegemonized as the way of life, but we are only slightly aware of alternate systems that can curb this menace in our society so that our public spaces like a college campus, a frat house, or a college auditorium can be a safe place for women to express themselves freely.