Film Review: Goat

Fraternity life proves to be a nightmarish ordeal in this harrowing drama.
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College fraternity hazing is exposed as a nightmarish national disgrace in Goat, director Andrew Neel’s astute portrait of masculine insecurity, rage and desire for strength and security—the last of which is sought through the camaraderie of Greek brotherhood. A damning indictment of this insular subculture (and, specifically, its initiation practices) that never devolves into preachiness, this small-scale film uses two brothers’ intertwined experiences to explore the thicket of psychological, emotional and social forces driving people to endure humiliation and abuse in return for acceptance. Assuming a measured perspective even when wallowing in repulsiveness, it’s a persuasive behind-closed-doors drama that both strives to understand why its horrors take place, and exhibits pity for those willing to suffer them.

Based on Brad Land’s 2004 memoir, Goat opens with a slow-motion sequence of arm-in-arm shirtless men screaming with ecstatic tribal fury before seguing to Brad (Ben Schnetzer) attending a party thrown by an unnamed Southern university’s Phi Sigma Mu, where his brother Brett (Nick Jonas) is already a member. Uninterested in the lesbian-and-cocaine revelry taking place, Brad bails early, and then agrees to give a ride to two strangers—who promptly direct him to the middle of nowhere, brutally assault him, and steal his car. It’s a scary incident caused by a clearly idiotic decision. And its after-shocks reverberate throughout the rest of the film, as Brad’s post-traumatic stress from the beating (visualized by a selfie of his battered face seen on a cracked cellphone screen) soon ignites both self-loathing over being so naïve and weak, and a subsequent craving for safety and power through numbers.

Brad seeks that by rushing Phi Sigma Mu, and Goat’s middle section takes its time detailing that process—the basement degradation, the incessant orders, and the homo-eroticized hostility and cruelty that fraternities employ in the name of forging lifelong connections. It’s a fetid stew wrought from young men bonding by expressing (or being on the receiving end of) their ugliest feelings of unworthiness, intolerance and hatred. Neel doesn’t shy away from the routine hazing forced upon David and his fellow rushes, including his more timid roommate Will (Danny Flaherty), and the director’s in-your-face portrayal of this incessant macho malice reveals the twisted dynamics at play: how fraternity brothers inflict nastiness on their underlings so they too won’t feel alone; how young men are driven to binge-drink and scream obscenities at each other partly because of deep-seated parental hang-ups; and how this culture breeds a corrosive sort of inclusiveness and companionship that’s strangely intoxicating, such that even graduated students (here, embodied by James Franco’s husband and father) keep coming back for more.

The further it proceeds past “Hell Week”—in which Dave, Will and others are besieged by older brothers’ spiteful demands—the more Goat tips into melodramatic territory, and Jonas is a bit too much of an inexpressive presence to fully shoulder his character’s narrative burden. Nonetheless, an excellent Schnetzer conveys the roiling thoughts and impulses compelling Brad forward, and Neel’s unobtrusive aesthetics (handheld camerawork, a realistic soundscape of bullying profanity) generate unnerving intimacy to the action at hand. Goat is a bracing study of men at their worst—and in a coda that finds Brad struggling to come face-to-face with his carjacking assailants, it also proves to be a quietly harrowing study of the way violence can shatter not only one’s body, but also one’s sense of self.

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