96 min., rated R.
Based on a 2004 tell-all memoir by Brad Land who pledged Kappa Sigma at Clemson University, “Goat” is the piercing, chillingly unflinching flip side of the good-time goofiness in “Animal House,” “Old School” and “Neighbors.” It could be a documentary on the rite of passage of fraternity initiation—or a horror film—and should be shown on college campuses to initiate more regulation. Writer-director Andrew Neel and screenwriters David Gordon Green (2013’s “Prince Avalanche”) & Mike Roberts do not seem to be telling the viewer how to think or feel, opting to merely observe the frat-bro culture and hazing for what goes down. “Goat” isn’t a fun party that anyone with a good head on his or her shoulder would want to attend. With that said, it’s still fascinating to watch how it explores our society's idea of masculinity and so-called brotherhood.
After a house party with his older brother Brett (Nick Jonas) in the summer, introverted but approachable Brad (Ben Schnetzer) leaves but not before agreeing to drop off a hooded guy and his friend. Following their directions to a remote drop-off, he is then violently assaulted and has his car jacked. As Brad takes the rest of the summer to recuperate from the incident, he decides he might be ready to start college on time in the fall and ends up pledging Phi Sigma Mu to join Brett. With roommate Will (Danny Flaherty), Brad attends the frat’s first big party of the year, which makes brotherhood look like the life. Then Hell Week begins. Is the physical and psychological terrorism endured by Brad and the other pledges actually worth it? How far is too far? If these are your Greek brothers, who needs them?
Startlingly candid from the real Brad Land’s point-of-view, “Goat” still isn’t presumptuous in having all the answers as if to understand the alleged appeal of fraternities. That the film isn't a straight-up indictment or an endorsement makes director Neel's approach much more daring, allowing everything to speak for itself and asking viewers to make up their own minds, too. The hazing scenes are brutal and effectively hard to watch, most of the testosterone- and power-driven scenarios as homoerotic as they are homophobic when involving booze, bodily fluids and phallic foods. If there is a moral center, it is Ben Schnetzer (2014’s “Pride”), devastatingly relatable as he is excellent in playing Brad with a breadth of sensitivity and intensity. The trauma that Brad initially experiences acts as a catalyst for reclaiming his manhood through Phi Sigma’s week of punishing rituals. Nick Jonas (TV’s “Scream Queens”) is strong and unexpectedly nuanced, too, as Brad’s blood brother Brett who slowly discovers his newfound mixed feelings about his frat. All of the other young actors, standouts including Gus Halper and Jake Picking as pledge masters Chance and Dixon, are assured and come across as legitimate frat brothers. In a brief but vital bit, James Franco shows up as a Class of 2000 alum who has a wife and kid at home but pounds beers and shots when he returns to the brotherhood.
“Goat” is one very harsh account, of course, but the truth never feels stretched and the emotions are nothing short of true. The only clear limitation is a subplot involving Brad and his crush, Leah (Virginia Gardner), that's introduced in the first half, as if to go somewhere, and then written out with no closure. In contrast, Brad and Brett's sibling relationship is never shortchanged. As it should, the film instills one with more than enough outrage, so if those who are off to college want to rush a frat after seeing "Goat," then they will have egregiously missed the point. Boys are just being boys, right? There’s a conversation starter.