The world of fraternity hazing takes the shape of horror exploitation in Andrew Neel’s intense and graphic drama Goat. It’s a vicious and often bewildering story of violence and animus among American male college students. Focusing on the seemingly thin line between brotherhood and brutality, the film offers an unflinching look at the social effects and personal fallout that accompanies the aggressive pursuit of manhood. The title refers to the pledges, or “goats,” who are subjected to seven days of severe physical and verbal abuse in order to prove worthy enough to become full-fledged members of a fraternity. “Hell week,” as its known, proves both a compact depiction of and a blunt metaphor for a pervasive and particularly poisonous facet of the male identity. Call it Toxic Masculinity: The Movie.

Goat isn’t an easy film to watch. It has a numbing quality and Neel doesn’t pull any punches. Its documentary style gives the action a harrowing immediacy. Viewers might find themselves looking away from some of the rougher moments, but the best stretches have a sort of suitable harshness. Neel puts a glaring spotlight on acts of cruelty—all of which are purportedly committed in the name of brotherhood—thereby underlining the even more glaring contradictions of frat life and male bonding.

His approach isn’t subtle, but neither is the subject. The opening images occur in slow motion as a steady din of electronic noise replaces the sound of screaming male bodies as they jump and flex in unison. Muscles strained and eyes bulging, they represent the unbridled nature of this particular kind of aggression, which Neel locates in subsequent images of unfiltered rage and emotion. He spends the rest of the film searching for a thematic undercurrent to fortify this intense scenery, but, unfortunately, it tends to elude him.

The story’s central idea focuses on the difference between real and frat brothers and determining who actually has your back. Things begin with the quiet and seemingly levelheaded Brad (Ben Schnetzer), who leaves a college party he was invited to by his older brother, Brett (Nick Jonas), only to be abducted and mercilessly beaten by a pair of townie thugs. Deeply shaken by the events, Brad begins rethinking his future and whether to forego college altogether. Eventually, Brett convinces him to give it a shot and suggests joining his frat as a way to put his past behind him. But prior trauma proves difficult to shake, particularly when his days and nights are filled with barbaric rituals involving excrement, low-level torture and an ungodly amount of forced alcohol consumption.

The screenplay, adapted by David Gordon Green from a memoir by Brad Land, is mostly unimaginative and adheres to a fairly rote set of circumstances. It’s all too easy to see what’s coming. Stories that dare to reveal this aspect of fraternity life don’t usually have a happy ending, and the sacrificial connotations of the title animal threatens to give away the film’s tragic climax. The idea of the goat also plays into perhaps the film’s most interesting theme: the willingness to downplay one’s own identities and dignities in the pursuit of social acceptance, something that happens even in the politest of company. Here, basic human insecurity is amplified to horrifying degrees, but it’s hard to know if Neel considers this part of the symptom or cause of such ballistic male aggression. Ultimately, Goat is short on ideas and heavy on shock value. Thankfully, Neel’s style imbues the shock with a viable sense of awe.

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