For the past 18 months, Nick Jonas has been having a "FutureSex/LoveSounds" moment. After breaking things off with his brothers/bandmates (R.I.P. The Jonas Brothers), Jonas reinvented himself. He ditched the purity ring and never looked back, embracing his sexuality and sensual new sound. Now, Jonas is reinventing himself yet again. This time, on the big screen.
On Friday (Jan. 22), the 23-year-old entertainer made his Sundance Film Festival debut in "Goat," a brutal look at the institutionalized toxic masculinity at play in a college fraternity. Director Andrew Neel's unflinching take on masculinity and brotherhood has been one of the highlights of this year's festival.
Ben Schnetzer delivers a riveting performance as Brad, a socially awkward young man who's not quite comfortable in his own skin. Meanwhile, his brother Brett, played by Jonas, is the complete opposite. A dudebro with a heart of gold, Brett is always in control, whether he's snorting coke, shotgunning a beer or hooking up with random sorority chicks. (Jonas' 20-second sex scene, though undercutting the film's emotional resonance, is pretty effing hot.) Despite their differences, Brad and Brett are bros -- and they act like it. Schnetzer and Jonas' chemistry is palpable. When they say "I love you" to each other, they mean it.
However, everything changes when Brad makes an ill-fated decision to give two strangers a ride home after leaving a Phi Sigma Mu party. The suspense, and subsequent helplessness, gradually builds as Brad drives the two to their elusive destination, which eventually leads down a dark road in the middle of nowhere. Brad's violent assault is hard to watch, both for its ruthlessness and senselessness. His doesn't fight back, a decision that haunts him throughout his recovery. Schnetzer excels at capturing Brad's intense vulnerability in the aftermath of the assault. He's fearful, scared and more than a little damaged.
When Brad decides he's finally ready to start college, Brett encourages him to pledge with his fraternity. Full of dudebros (pledge master Dixon wears a choker straight out of 2002) high on testosterone, booze and drugs, Phi Sigma Mu signifies the kind of self-assurance and brute strength that Brad feels he lacks. But once "Hell Week" begins, the frat's brutal and demeaning hazing rituals start to take its toll on Brad, physically and mentally.
The film's depiction of toxic masculinity is its emotional crux. It depicts Phi Sigma Mu as aggressive and dominant, where the worst of humanity is on display. To them, real men are strong, and showing emotion (or kindness) is a weakness. For example, Brad's decision to kindly give two complete strangers a ride was a sign of weakness. These are Alpha Males asserting their dominance to those they deem to be lesser -- their "goats." Their hazing rituals are physical, mental and often sexual in nature, and if you can't "be and man" and take it, then you have no place in Phi Sigma Mu.
But at the same time, Neel manages to incite some empathy for his hellish subjects. Having endured the same kind of trauma as pledges themselves, they are victims too. This is a cyclical condition, after all.
For the most part, the movie's tone is somber and understated, with the exception of one over-the-top cameo from producer James Franco, who literally forces Brad to punch him in the stomach. Franco's character, an alum of the frat, is toxic masculinity at its worst. He's a man-child who'd rather verbally harass a young college kid and float a keg in a frat house than go home to his wife and infant son.
Meanwhile, Jonas captures Brett's inner turmoil with nuance and subtly, as he becomes increasingly repulsed by the behavior he's witnessing -- and guilty for subjecting his brother to more trauma. He begins to distance himself from his brother, which leads to one of the most authentic and visceral scenes in the film. It's a crucial role for Jonas, who's constantly trying to challenge himself as a multi-hyphenate performer. In "Goat," Jonas reinvents himself as an actor, as someone who can chew through tough scenes with unyielding confidence and grace, and at the same time, sustain charisma and authenticity.
In the end, "Goat" uses both violence and guilt to test the seemingly unbreakable bonds of brotherhood. The result is a truly affecting drama that questions the very pillars of so-called masculinity.