'Goat': Sundance Review

A harsh but gripping study in uncontrolled male aggression.

Ben Schnetzer and Nick Jonas play brothers psychologically shaken by the violence of fraternity hazing rituals in Andrew Neel's drama about the twisted byways of manhood.

The bonds of brotherhood are both torn and strengthened in director Andrew Neel's unsettling Goat, a brutally naturalistic depiction of the ruthless codes of masculinity and warped tribal instincts at play during pledging season at a Southern college. Centered by riveting performances from Ben Schnetzer and Nick Jonas, this taut adaptation of Brad Land's 2004 memoir is less a dramatized depiction of headline-grabbing hazing tragedies than a penetrating consideration of the psychology of violence and its role in defining manhood. It's a tough sit, but nonetheless a film that should draw adventurous audiences receptive to provocative drama.

The project has been in development for more than a decade, with David Gordon Green originally attached to direct. Neel (King Kelly) and co-writer Mike Roberts worked from Green's adaptation and have opened out the material in intelligent ways.

Land's book is a very interior first-person narrative written in prose stripped down to the bone, its stark immediacy laced with moments of dreamy lyricism. The screenwriters have fleshed out the language while amplifying the unflinching realism, distilling the plot down to essential details but making the humiliation and horror of the hazing scenes more graphic. Shot by Ethan Palmer in a loose, unfussy style, with a lot of handheld camera, the experience is conveyed with scalding authenticity.

The film also makes not-so-veiled allusions to the culture of torture and human rights violations that shocks us in news from around the globe. But those grim realities are even more disturbing in the context of a hermetic homeland community deluded enough to consider itself an incubator for bright young gents.

The arresting slow-motion title sequence is a blunt signal of what's to come. Accompanied only by the distorted sounds of Arjan Miranda's ambient music, we see a seething mass of shirtless male students, clustered together in some sort of animalistic ritual, the skin over their muscles tensed to bursting point and their mouths open in angry, contorted howls.

Cut to a beer blast, during which both the intimacy between brothers Brad (Schnetzer) and Brett (Jonas) and their unequal dynamic are swiftly established. They're close in age, but Brad is socially uneasy, not quite comfortable in his own skin, while Brett is the cool dude in full command of himself, snorting coke and busy figuring out which babe he'll nail. Brett stays on as Brad gets in his car to leave. A stranger claiming to have seen him at the party talks Brad into giving him a ride home, and when the guy then ushers a friend into the back seat, it's too late to say no.

From this very early scene, Neel is in full control, building a sickening sense of helplessness as it becomes clear in an instant that Brad has made a terrible mistake. The vicious assault he suffers is terrifying in its randomness and its relentlessness, even after he offers to give them whatever they want without resistance. Injecting a note of wealth inequality, a dialogue reference later suggests the attackers were redneck townies with a hatred for middle-class college kids.

In a telling representation of his state of mind, Brad captures his busted-up face in the shattered screen of his smartphone. But while the scars heal, the fear remains. The character doesn't articulate his feelings until much later, and even then only vaguely, but Schnetzer subtly reveals Brad's creeping sense of diminished manhood. Even Brett's swaggering buddies, while showing concern, seem to look at him with an underlying hint of contempt for his weakness. And Brett's guilt over letting him leave the party alone creates distance between them.

When Brad decides he's sufficiently recovered to start college, Brett actively encourages his brother to pledge with his fraternity. Full of cocky guys high on their own testosterone and drowning in booze and co-eds, Phi Sigma Mu promises all the self-assurance, strength and sense of belonging that Brad feels he lacks. But once Hell Week starts, the extreme nature of the hazing compounds his damage. Even as he toughens up at Brett's urging, the frat boys' cruel treatment of the "goats," especially Brad's fragile roommate Will (Danny Flaherty), proves too much for both brothers.

The one false step here is a distracting extended cameo by producer James Franco as an alumnus who's now married and a father, but still hankering for his wild youth as a legendary party animal — a character not in the book. A scene in which he takes Brad in hand to extol the glories of the Phi Sigma brotherhood is just awkward.

Other fraternity members fulfill the same function of overbearing macho attitude disguised as friendship far more effectively. The most notable among them are Chance (Gus Halper), a smug rich boy from the same hometown, whose meanness appears fueled by his insecurities; and Dixon (Jake Picking), a muscle-bound jock who savors his absolute power as pledge master.

The young actors all do strong work, suggesting individual personalities while also displaying the herd mentality of both the perpetrators of violence and its victims.

In the key supporting role, Jonas is terrific at communicating the social ease and natural charisma of a good-looking young guy who knows exactly who he is. He then skillfully darkens the character, closing in on himself as Brett becomes steadily repulsed by the behavior he's witnessing, and fearful for Brad. Schnetzer, perhaps best known for the Brit comedy Pride, gives a breakout performance. Playing a character who's always observing, but struggling to participate, he makes Brad often seem stronger than his damaged assessment of himself would indicate. But his intense vulnerability gives the movie its bruised heart.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Killer Films, Rabbit Bandini Productions, Battle Mountain Films
Cast: Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas, Gus Halper, Danny Flaherty, Virginia Gardner, Jake Picking, Brock Yurich, Will Pullen, Austin Lyon, Eric Staves, James Franco, Jamar Jackson

Director: Andrew Neel
Screenwriters: David Gordon Green, Andrew Neel, Mike Roberts, based on the memoir by Brad Land
Producers: Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, James Franco, Vince Jolivette

Executive producers: Robert Halmi, Jim Reeve, John Wells
Director of photography: Ethan Palmer

Production designer: Akin McKenzie
Costume designer: Sarah Mae Burton

Music: Arjan Miranda
Editor: Brad Turner

Casting: Susan Shopmaker
Sales: CAA, Great Point Media

Not rated, 102 minutes.