Director: Andrew Neel
Cast: Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas, Gus Halper, Danny Flaherty, Virginia Gardner, Jake Picking, Brock Yurich, Will Pullen, Eric Staves, James Franco
MPAA Rating: (for disturbing behavior involving hazing, strong sexual content and nudity, pervasive language, violence, alcohol abuse and some drug use)
Running Time: 1:36
Release Date: 9/23/16 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 22, 2016
Goat repeatedly makes explicit the connection between a random act of brutal violence and the process of pledging for a college fraternity. The movie doesn't need to connect those dots. By the second or third scene of hazing (which the frat brothers insist isn't "hazing"—to the belief of nobody except, maybe, themselves), it's obvious that this process is a sustained act of physical and psychological violence.
The connection, though, does raise a few, vital questions of note. The first and most important one, of course, is why someone who was the victim of sudden, unprovoked violence would be willing to place himself in a situation in which the violence is both predictable and avoidable. That's the crux of whatever point the movie wants to make, and it's a question that the movie hesitant to explore, let alone answer.
The closest it comes, perhaps, is in its depiction of a certain brand of masculinity. It's the sort that not only exerts physical superiority and endurance above all else but also must retain the appearance of those characteristics. In other and much blunter words, it's not enough that someone is able to beat the crap out of somebody else. There must always be the threat that such a crap-beating is imminent, especially if that somebody else crosses a vaguely defined, ever-shifting line. To fail in either regard is to be a failure as a man.
These guys call themselves brothers, and while brothers fight and will fight to protect each other, there must be more to a fraternal relationship. There also must come a point at which this violence is more characteristic of the relationship between combatants, not "brothers."
The movie opens with a display of dominance in a slow-motion sequence of a circle of shirtless frat guys yelling. It's either celebratory or threatening, and the fact that we can't distinguish seems to be the point.
At a party at the frat house, Brad (Ben Schnetzer) is out of place. His actual brother Brett (Nick Jonas) is a member of the fraternity in question, and he sticks around to watch a couple of college girls make out while Brad decides to leave early. Across the street from Brad's car, a guy in a hooded sweatshirt appears from the shadows. He asks for a ride, "just up the block," and a hesitant Brad eventually agrees. That's when the guy says his buddy needs a ride, too.
Brad's "sin" is that he is too trusting—that he's naïve, at worst. The rid ends with Brad beaten, his wallet taken, and his car stolen. The cops can't do anything (They don't believe that anyone would be that gullible). Six months later, Brett suggests that his brother return to school and pledge in his fraternity. Whenever the talk goes to Brad's assault, the frat brothers offer two lies: that he was attacked by surprise and that, if he becomes a brother, nothing like that will happen to him again.
The movie proceeds to go into the details of the hazing process, which the frat brothers insist upon calling "initiation rituals," lest anyone in authority discover that what they suspect is happening in the frat house's basement is actually happening. There are a few constants here, but alcohol is a constant among constants. Beer and liquor flow freely—and unwillingly into the pledges' mouths when they're forced to stand on all fours. A "game" is made of putting anyone who vomits into a dog cage. The frat guys lock their pledges in the basement, make them sleep on the vomit-covered floor, and then send them back to the dorm rooms without any clothes.
Director Andrew Neel, who co-wrote the screenplay with David Gordon Green (adapting Brad Land's memoir), treats these scenes as the horror shows that they are. This is especially true when the brothers put hoods over the pledges' heads and drive them out to the woods, where they threaten forced bestiality if the pledges don't accomplish their tasks.
The motives for being willing participants in such torture are all about belonging. Brad's roommate (Danny Flaherty) finds himself having sex for the first time, and he doesn't want to lose that—or have worse happen to him on account of being a coward (The guys use another, sex-specific word, naturally). Brett eventually develops a conscience about what's happening, now that his brother is involved, but he's still hesitant to offer any help beyond advice about how meaningless frat life is. Brad keeps a photo of himself after he was attacked on a broken cellphone, and there's a scene in which he takes another photo with the phone—a similar, if lesser, bruise around his eye.
Again, the physical connection between the assault and the prolonged initiation process (which the frat brothers structure in such a way that it seems to have no end) is apparent. What's absent is any meaningful correlation between the two (The movie begins to touch upon the idea of silence about violence being as damaging as the violence itself, but it ends just as it hits that point). Goat, then, is a disturbing insider's look into a culture of violence and threat disguised as brotherhood. It's unflinching in showing what happens and how it happens, but the whys of the culture elude it.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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