Paramount

The first two minutes of the new drama Goat offer a nerve-wracking prologue. Shirtless fraternity brothers jump up and down in super-slow motion, screaming at the edge of a forest. Their mouths hang open while their fists pump, and the camera pans across the veins in their faces, capturing their rage. It’s a horrifying image, and the message seems obvious: These young men are like animals. But the sequence also poses a troubling question: What, exactly, made them that way?

It’s a question that Goat, released Friday, seeks to answer. The title of the director Andrew Neel’s latest movie refers to what the fictional Phi Sigma Mu fraternity brothers call pledges about to undergo an initiation period known as “hell week.” As the movie makes clear, the hazing is really torture—physical and psychological—and involves feces, duct tape, animal cages, (lots of) alcohol, and sexual humiliation. At the center of the film is Brad (Ben Schnetzer), a freshman who chooses to endure this brutality, if only to join his older brother Brett (Nick Jonas), and reclaim the manhood he feels he lost during an attack the month before.

When the movie premiered at Sundance this year, Neel described Goat as not exactly a screed against fraternity culture so much as a critique of modern masculinity. Indeed, the film illustrates the inability of its young male characters to express themselves outside of an all-important binary (“Are you a man, or are you a pussy?”), one that’s dangerously reinforced with sexual conquests and abuse, feats of strength, violence, and submission. That viewers witness all this uncensored behavior in Goat, based on Brad Land’s memoir of the same name, is a rare pop-cultural moment. For decades, Hollywood has portrayed fraternity culture and hazing as ripe subjects for light-hearted comedies. Goat stands out simply by virtue of being a dark drama and for challenging the supposed innocence of traditions that so often hurt the young men who take part in them.

Only recently have documentaries begun to explore the uglier side of fraternity life. Earlier this year, a BBC documentary series Frat Boys: Inside America’s Fraternities provided a window into the kind of data reported in 2013 by Bloomberg, which cited more than 60 fraternity-related deaths since 2005. The National Study of Student Hazing, released in 2014, found that 73 percent of students involved in a fraternity or sorority experience at least one kind of hazing. In 2015’s The Hunting Ground, which looked specifically at sexual assault on college campuses, one interviewee described frats as “unregulated bars” serving doctored drinks—a segue for the film’s report that enrolled fraternity men are three times more likely than other men to commit rape on a college campus.

But such documentaries can still come across to viewers as polemics, compared to the narratives Hollywood has peddled for years. Fictional movies about the fraternity experience have long operated within the safer comedy genre—Animal House, PCU, National Lampoon’s Van Wilder, Old School, Accepted, and Neighbors. They perpetuate stories about men with arrested development, raging against preppy standards and elitist institutions or fighting for their right not to be academically inclined. Even if some films, like Revenge of the Nerds, ultimately condemn frat culture, they still offer fairly lighthearted portrayals of the rituals involved: being doused with cold water and plastered with chicken feathers, surprise wakeup calls, and naming ceremonies. Those in charge of the mayhem often come across as caricaturist villains, and their victims rarely appear traumatized. These movies acknowledged that hazing happened, but often framed it as a form of social bonding, or else used it as a narrative device to draw the character’s palatable arc from outsider to brother.

Perhaps that’s why Goat feels so new. Unlike its predecessors, the movie cares less about plot and more about the personal demons of its main character, Brad. The movie begins the summer before Brad’s first year in college when two men kidnap Brad off the street at night and force him to drive into the middle of nowhere. They proceed to beat him mercilessly and leave him nearly unconscious. The post-traumatic stress Brad suffers after this experience establishes him as a particularly vulnerable character even before school begins.

Brad’s ultimate decision to pledge Phi Sigma Mu thus seems at once foolish and understandable. While Goat certainly paints the brothers in a negative light, it also prompts viewers to question why the freshmen pledges, including Brad’s roommate, are willing to undergo such awful treatment in the first place. Brad’s brother, Brett, at first an instigator, distances himself from the frat when things go too far: when pledges are forced to bob for sausages, chug hot sauce, slap each other, and drink themselves to incapacitation. In one of these scenes, Brad, even as he vomits, rejects his brother’s help. In Brad’s mind, this formalized suffering is how he will reestablish his manhood after his attack.

It doesn’t help that Brad is inundated with emasculating language—the kind that implies that being compared to a woman is the worst possible insult: “Don’t be a pussy.” “Take a shot, this is some man shit.” “You are my bitches.” “Did your balls drop yet?” The taunts and repeated vulgarities only strengthen the pressurized bubble Brad has entered. Refusing to participate or play along would mean popping that bubble, toppling a system he thinks he needs in order to redeem himself, to be the man that his peers—and by extension society—expect him to be.

From the opening scene, Neel is looking to make viewers uncomfortable, rather than couching anything in the dismissive logic of “boys will be boys.” The director is keen to show audiences a paddleboard hanging on the wall of the house, a relic of decades past and a reminder that the frat initiations of old have evolved into distortions of what they used to be. In one “hell week” ritual, the brothers march their pledges through the woods with blindfolds and line them up. One leader shoves his crotch into a pledge’s face, grasping a banana to simulate oral sex while smearing the mushed fruit all over his target. Then the pledge master herds the freshmen into a small cabin with a full keg of beer inside. Mud is poured onto their bodies, which incites wrestling and writhing. Once the upperclassmen finish their spectating, they give an ultimatum: Pledges have three hours to finish the keg, otherwise, they’ll be forced to have sex with a live goat, stolen from a nearby farm.

Neel shows it all—the frantic drinking, the vomiting, more frantic drinking—until the pledges achieve their goal. They celebrate with bare-chested screams, only realizing the hollowness of their accomplishments once their hangovers kick in and their 22-year-old superiors find even more humiliating games to play. Here, manhood isn’t something learned or contemplated, but simply given (for sexual conquests, for feats of strength, for holding down liquor), and, just as easily, taken away by those in charge. “Pledges have to go through hell, otherwise what’s the point?” the frat’s pledge master says in an empty defense of his actions.

Which is to say that tough-guy mindsets are difficult to change. As Michael Kimmel, a sociologist at Stony Brook University, writes in his book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, masculinity isn’t innate or “hard-wired” but something that is “coerced and policed relentlessly by other guys.” But who determines what masculinity is once the coercion ends, when brothers graduate or frats break up (or are shut down)? That existential question once provided the basis for comedies like Old School, where middle-aged men seem unable to move on from the halcyon days of consequence-free college brotherhood.

Now, however, it lays the foundation—in a much more challenging and perhaps enlightening way—for a movie like Goat, in which Brad continuously confronts his psychological and physical pain he’s endured, even as he tries to rationalize it away. As James Hamblin wrote in The Atlantic in June, “toxic masculinity,” the kind that frats like Phi Sigma Mu help perpetuate, “sets expectations that prime us for disappointment.” By the end, Goat and its protagonist seem aware of this reality. Brad has consumed ungodly amounts of alcohol, been beaten, and tormented to exhaustion. He’s gone through hell to erase his insecurities and indecision, and emerged right where he started.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.