It starts like some kind of violent ballet: A semicircle of shirtless young men scream at something on the ground offscreen, in slow motion and without a sound, veins popping out of their necks like roided-out riverbeds. We can't see the object of their animalistic aggression, but that's not the point. Drunk on testosterone and plain old drunk, the hulking boys are not predators huddled over a zebra carcass; they're fraternity gentlemen. Welcome to Pledge Week.
The alternately chilling and poetic interlude that opens Goat, director Andrew Neel's scandalizing look into one frat's merciless regimen of of can-you-hack-it hazing, sets the stage for a different kind of college movie. (It hits theaters on Friday, September 23rd.) Based on Brad Land's 2004 memoir about his experiences with the Clemson University chapter of the Kappa Sigma fraternity in the late Nineties, the film recreates the dehumanizing battery of hazing rituals designed to separate the boys from the men before new inductees would be allowed into a life of keggers. "In the moment, it seemed like just a little bit of stuff to go through to get all these other things," Land says. "These guys have jobs given to them by brothers, they're set up for life. They have a network of people to look after them."
Which doesn't stop the frat brothers in the film's fictional university, especially the elite leadership group led by Brad's brother Brett (pop-star-turned-actor Nick Jonas), from putting their prospective brethren through seven days of living hell. Half-naked, whimpering freshmen are forced to drink toxic amounts of alcohol until they vomit (and then drink some more), are locked in cages, urinated upon, and, at one point, are forced to repeatedly, violently slap each other. Animal House this is not – and don't even ask why the film is called Goat (there's a reason, and it's not pleasant).
"At the end of the day, we'd separate the 'pledges' from the 'brothers' so they didn’t see each other that much," Neel says. "I'd tell the pledges, 'I won't say what they're going to do to you, but you're going to be humiliated, you're going to be uncomfortable, physically and emotionally. We'll be here watching to make sure everything's safe, but it's not going to be fun.' I was their pledgemaster, in my own way, on set."
As they immersed themselves in their roles of Brad and his older sibling, costars Ben Schnetzer and Jonas both found it easy to connect to the disturbing subject matter. Almost too easy, in fact. "When I was touring in a band with my brothers," Jonas explained, "we were around this same age, and so we kind of built our own little brotherhood in that sense. But I saw very quickly in some of these hazing rituals we did that when you get 30 twentysomething-year-old guys all together, even in a sense of make-believe, things can get really intense. There's an alpha thing that kicks in, and you want to push the envelope. I caught myself, in moments, going further than I ever thought I'd be able to."
Both Jonas and Schnetzer got into show business too early for a traditional collegiate experience, so they took a studied approach to getting into a khaki-clad barbarian's headspace. The boys viewed bro-auteur Todd Phillips' early HBO documentary Frat House, another nauseating glimpse into the darker corners of Greek life, and read Andrew Lohse's horrifying memoir Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy upon recommendation from Neel. Schnetzer took his outsider's perspective as a blessing, however. "Not having that college experience was kind of an asset," he said. "Because Brad's not a frat boy, not when the movie starts. It wasn't a place I needed to be completely familiarized and immersed in. We were both new to this world."
But the members of the cast surprised even themselves with how seamlessly they transitioned into the mindset of a tormentor, playing out their own little Stanford Prison Experiment with cans of Natty Light instead of police batons. "When you let a scene run for that extended amount of time and you're shooting handheld, it's really easy to forget that you're making a movie," Schnetzer says.
One scene in particular stands out to him: The new recruits are rounded up and led to a cramped cabin in the woods, where they're tasked with killing a whole keg's worth of beer before time runs out, with ghastly consequences awaiting them should they fail. "Andrew and Ethan, our [director of photography], would jump in and get the footage they needed to capture while the rest of us rolled with the scene, followed where it went," Schnetzer recalled. Of the thick layer of mud and human filth that coats damn near everything by the time they're through, all he had to say was "it was a lot to handle."
And yet Brad Land muscled through it all, just as his brother did before him, and as thousands of fresh-faced pledges do every rush season. Goat boils down to one burning question: Why would anyone allow themselves to go through this? Schnetzer offered a bit of insight on the social-phenomenon aspect of frat culture: "It's been kind of woven into the collegiate experience for a long, long time. It’s normalized, and so you can't always see the forest for the trees. It feels totally normal." Neel names what he calls "neo-tribalism" as a pet fascination, referring to the subtle ways that a group mentality can influence an individual's mind. Playing armchair sociologist for a moment, he explains, "We're programmable animals. Our social nature makes us capable of being swayed or convinced to do a lot of things very quickly."
And for a film almost conspicuously free of females excepting the occasional grunty sex scene, it's got an unanticipated feminist bite to it. Unchecked masculinity doesn't just make victims of women with alarming frequency. It's also what compels Brad's sadistic pledgemaster to treat his prospects like human chattel, and the fuel behind actor (and one of the film's producers) James Franco's cameo as a former brother that crashes their house party — and keeps bellowing for someone to punch him in the gut. (Spoiler: It happens. Everyone goes nuts and drinks more beer.) Testosterone's a drug like any other, and the cast members witnessed firsthand how hard the crash can be.
"[As we were working,] I was making discoveries about the real point of the movie," Jonas said. "And that’s in two parts: In the moment, it's the escalation of aggression and everything that plays into matters getting out of hand. Then when I was watching it, it was more about the inability to be vulnerable and open. Masculinity is something that I find to be really interesting, psychologically. Playing the aggressor is different than the other things I’ve done, where I’m in a more vulnerable position. This helped me to grow a lot.”
“Conversations about toxic masculinity," Schnetzer says. "That’s the dialogue that will hopefully be sparked by this film."