Hordes of shirtless young men bounce around in slow motion during the opening sequence of “Goat,” which immediately positions fraternity hazing rituals in primal terms. Slickly directed by Andrew Neel from a script co-written with David Gordon Green and Mike Roberts, the dreary movie scrutinizes the nature of that animalistic behavior and unsurprisingly discovers a pathetic scene. While it may not bring the deepest analysis to the table, “Goat” effectively shows the way frat life preys on the weak by hiding insecurities under layers of crass machismo.
Based on Brad Land’s 2004 memoir, “Goat” revolves around the fallout of Land’s experience getting mugged, at which point he transferred to Clemson University in South Carolina, following his older brother’s coattails to the campus’ biggest fraternity. The rough hazing demands he encounters at first provide a catharsis for Land (a wonderfully subtle Ben Schnetzer) to strengthen his resolve in the wake of an earlier traumatic experience. But as his worried sibling Brett (Nick Jonas, wearing a frozen scowl and looking nothing like the glamorous pop star one might expect) looks on, the situation grows increasingly more problematic.
Lorded over with brutish arrogance by upperclassman Dixon (Jake Picking), the entry point to the frat house takes on ominous dimensions, even as those subjecting themselves to the relentless humiliation feel they can’t pull themselves away. A sharp character study that tips into visceral horror, “Goat” sometimes adopts its critical gaze too bluntly, but it always cuts deep.
While the script was passed around in various stages for over a decade, “Goat” is a natural fit for Neel, whose zany 2012 found footage thriller “King Kelly” focused on an internet-obsessed teen seductress as her online antics gradually led her into a dangerous situation. A decade ago, Neel co-directed “Darkon,” a masterful non-fiction tale of live action role players whose fantasy-obsessed lives culminate in serious conflicts. Like those earlier movies, “Goat” scrutinizes an aspect of American culture often relegated to punchlines and magnifies the darker reality beneath.
Land’s commitment to the hazing process, which involve twisted versions of calisthenics mixed with plenty of booze and more than one bodily fluid, tip the material into horror territory — and even though they only go so far, Land’s unspoken willingness to play along stands at the center of the movie as its central mystery. Desperate to prove himself, he maintains a stone-faced disposition that defies his capacity to explain his motivation, despite his brother — his real brother, anyway — challenging him on it. As Land undertakes each endurance tests (getting tied up, blindfolded and drinking an absurd volume of warm beer), he seems to be striving for an impossible ideal.
Demonstrating as much, the struggles faced by his scrawny roommate, Will (Danny Flaherty), which culminate in a tragic development, speak to the ultimate futility of fighting to belong in an inherently oppressive environment. Blinded by his need to succeed, Land only starts to realize the absurdity of the frat’s anarchic universe when he sees its impact on others.
The trajectory hits a few obvious beats, leading to final confrontations that feel a touch too predictable. But these are minor issues in a movie that confront its ugly subject matter to such an unflinching degree.
At first, the tribal nature of frat life takes on an eerily funny quality (most notably during a hilarious cameo by aging frat boy James Franco as an aging brother whose brutish sensibilities position him as a kind of elder chieftain). But the grotesque hazing that dominates the middle section unfolds in an extraordinary pileup of unsettling visuals that wouldn’t seem out of place in Pasolini’s “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.” Like last year’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” the movie bears witness to depraved antics seemingly done in jest, until they go too far. It begs a sociological question by implication: What culture allows such mayhem to operate freely at an institute of higher learning? “Goat” doesn’t provide a simple response, but offers a compelling snapshot.
The insular frat world maintains an internal logic, with the brothers insisting their cruelty stems from a search for profound commitment. “The pledges go through hell,” one claims when Brett suggests they’ve gone too far. “Otherwise, what’s the point?” Applying a cult-like air of superiority to dominate the campus, they enact an encroaching sense of entrapment on their young trainees to the point where they feel trapped by an oppressive social order. “If you quit,” asks one despondent pledge, “what else is there?”
As Land wrestles with that one, he arrives at a deeper understanding of his own sensitives. With the masterful final shot, Neel wisely leaves the character in a fragile place, uncertain of his next steps. His situation epitomizes a larger conundrum facing many young men eager to feel like they belong. Frat life may not be the answer, but it offers an easy solution.
“Goat” premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.