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.