If you are in college or have a child in college, and the possibility of joining a fraternity is on the radar, Goat might put you off it completely. Directed by Andrew Neel (King Kelly) from a script by Neel, Mike Roberts and David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express), the movie – based on a memoir by Brad Land – is an unsparing exploration of the vicious nature of hazing and fraternity culture that may not hit every emotional note but does offer up some provocative ideas about what it means to be a young male.
Goat begins with an act of violence: 19-year-old Brad (Ben Schnetzer) is leaving a summer party one night when he rather innocently agrees to give two other male partygoers a ride. The pair end up forcing Brad into an empty field miles from his home, where they brutally beat him, rob him and steal his car. Recovering from his physical and psychological wounds, Brad is not sure if he wants to return to college but is convinced to do so by his older brother Brett (Nick Jonas), who also gets Brad a spot as a pledge in his fraternity, Phi Magna Mu.
What happens to Brad and his fellow pledges, including his more delicate roommate Will (Danny Flaherty), during the fraternity ritual of Hell Week is ugly and at times even unbearable to watch. And it poses the question: what exactly is the difference between the assault Brad endured at the hands of strangers and the battery of torture – because that’s what it is – that he is subjected to by his so-called “brothers” even as his real one watches from the side?
Rampant alcohol abuse, violent pranks and beatings, and threats of even more horrific acts are part and parcel of hazing, which is officially not allowed on the campus but of course happens anyway, with the university only taking action after a tragedy occurs late in the film. Yet what’s fascinating is that even as Brad undergoes more abuse, he begins to feel weirdly closer to his potential frat brothers while regretting not standing up for himself during the attack the previous summer. His brother, meanwhile, begins to question what it means to be in a fraternity and seeks to stop or at least tone down what Brad and the others are going through – which ironically drives a wedge between the siblings.
Neel observes all this in a somewhat detached, semi-documentary style, as if he just happens to be hanging around with the fraternity, and his style serves the material in the sense that he doesn’t judge anyone either way. There is something reassuring about being told, as Brad is, that what happened to him during the summer will “never happen again” when his brothers have his back. But the rage, sadism and depravity that those brothers display during Hell Week makes the viewer wonder if these are really the people you want in your corner.
Schnetzer (The Book Thief) gives a breakout performance as Brad, who is a sensitive, compassionate person but is forced to “toughen up” by both his attack and his treatment during Hell Week. The young actor does an admirable job delivering the complexity of emotions he’s going through. Nick Jonas, meanwhile, is also quite good as Brett, pulled apart by his loyalty to his brother and his allegiance to the frat. While the supporting characters – especially house leaders Chance (Gus Halper) and Dixon (Jake Picking) – could have used more development, the story is really focused on the two brothers and the leads both deliver promisingly (James Franco makes a cameo as an older frat brother, now with a wife and kid, who comes back for “one beer” and ends up getting trashed and blacking out).
Goat doesn’t quite reach the emotional or cultural depth it could, leaving out a lot of the basic motivations behind Hell Week and not quite addressing the larger implications of the Angry White Male subculture that frat houses certainly seem to be a breeding ground for (I don’t recall seeing a single non-white face in the Phi Magma Mu house). The issue of sexual assault, so relevant now, is also left unaddressed, with the women in the film reduced to mere sex objects who seem more than willing to drunkenly fuck these guys at every opportunity. There is a scene where Brad silently respects a “no” from a partner right as they are about to have sex, although how some of his less sensitive frat brothers might have handled the same situation is left unexplored.
Despite missing some opportunities, however, Goat provides a glimpse into the young male psyche that is challenging, often unpleasant and in the end quite disturbing. I can’t stand how much my gender’s rites of passage are steeped in violence, braggadocio and bluster, and watching Goat makes me more than happy that I never even thought about joining a fraternity in my college years.
Goat is in theaters today (September 23).