Fraternity initiation generally gets handled in movies as a goofy lark in keg-chugging comedies like “Animal House.” Hazing, on the other hand, doesn’t get as much play, but it’s at the center of “Goat,” which had its world premiere Friday night at the Sundance Film Festival.
Based on the memoir by Brad Land, the film is likely to generate discussion not only for its intense scenes of frat pledges enduring “Hell Week” but also for the memorable performances by Ben Schnetzer (as Land) and Nick Jonas (as Brad’s older brother Brett).
Both actors are in interesting places in their careers; Ben Schnetzer made a splash in the U.S. with his supporting turn in “The Book Thief,” followed by standout lead work in “Pride,” while Jonas has taken on provocative roles on TV (“Kingdom,” “Scream Queens”) and Broadway while revealing his buff torso all over the internet in a so-far successful strategy to distance himself from his boy-band/Disney Channel origins.
The film opens at a raucous college party that high-schooler Brad is attending with his big brother. Brad leaves early, and someone who claims to have been at the bash asks for a lift home. The stranger and his friend guide Brad to a deserted field where they savagely take turns beating him before stealing his car. After spending the summer recuperating from the incident, Brad decides to start college that fall at Brett’s alma mater so that he can pledge Brett’s fraternity.
Hell Week is no picnic for any freshman, but Brett’s brothers seem to go out of their way to specifically call up memories of the attack. Brad’s also-pledging roommate Will (Danny Flaherty, “The Americans”) is forced by pledgemaster Dixon (Jake Picking, a cruelly handsome, new millennial William Zabka) to repeatedly slap Brad in the face, for instance, in a way that makes Brad uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Brett, who initially championed Brad’s decision to pledge, finds himself torn between two different kinds of fraternal responsibilities.
David Gordon Green wrote the initial adaptation of Land’s book, with Mike Robert and director Andrew Neel (“King Kelly”) getting credit for the final draft. The screenplay has many sharp observations about college life, such as an unhappy Will telling Brad that the only thing worse than enduring the torture of pledging is the social stigma of being known as a guy who couldn’t take it. There’s also a hilarious segment featuring James Franco (who’s also a producer) as one of those alums who doesn’t let familial obligations stop him from stopping by campus to party with the frat boys.
By the end of “Goat,” however, there appear to be some scenes missing. Whatever happens to the girl that Brad spends the first chunk of the movie mooning after? How much of Brett’s change of heart about fraternity life and the pointlessness of hazing has to do with seeing it happen to Brad versus his concern about Brad’s psyche following the carjacking?
Along with an ending that some will find either enigmatic or unsatisfying, the movie could benefit from some minor re-editing. But there’s still much that works here, from the chillingly droning score to a uniformly strong cast. “Goat” is a film that will elicit a great deal of interest on college campuses, but there’s plenty for us post-grads to contemplate as well.