Earlier this year, Richard Linklater introduced us to a group young men that had their minds set on partying and the good natured ribbing that goes on between guys in the movie Everybody Wants Some!!. It was a smart subversion of masculinity, and for all the flaws of the characters there’s was still a sense that you would want to hang out with them and grab a beer. The same could not be said about the young men front and center of Goat, the new film from director Andrew Neel. Goat explores the worst of youthful masculinity, that moment when the lines is crossed from good natured ribbing into degrading torture. Just because Goat can be tough to sit through doesn’t mean that it’s not a compelling piece of cinema.
When we first meet Brad (Ben Schnetzer) he’s at a party with his older brother Brett (Nick Jonas). Terrible music is pulsating through the house as Brett’s friend Chance (Gus Halper) provides his female companions with cocaine and alcohol. Mild mannered and uncomfortable, Brad decides to leave the party as it rages on. Outside the party, Brad is confronted by two hooded strangers asking for a ride, and the young man foolishly relents to their pressure. These brutish strangers violently beat Brad on a rural road, robbing him of his wallet and driving off in his car. The after effects of this evening leaves Brad in a state of depression and angst. Through all the anger, Brad does get some refuge in the reassurances from Brett and Chance, the two having a solid bond through their fraternity. Seeking that level of comradery, Brad decides to enroll in Brett’s college and pledge the fraternity. Along with his new roommate Will (Danny Flaherty), Brad pledges the fraternity but quickly learns that induction into this exclusive club isn’t just one long party, it’s a grueling process of seemingly boundless degradation.
Goat travails into some problematic territory – the brutality of the hazing is presented with an unflinching eye; there are few women characters and they’re seldom even given names; and the cast is nothing buy privileged white dudes. Of course, that would be an issue in a lot of movies, but that’s the point of Goat. None of these guys are the least bit concerned with knowing the names or other details of their sexual conquests. None of these guys have concerns about diversity, and it’s not hard to imagine that a few of these grotesque frat bros might be concerned about “white genocide.” This about an insular world of white male privilege, where brutalizing those slightly younger than you is a rite of passage.
It’s that very ugliness that director Andrew Neel effectively captures, but Neel and co-writers Mike Roberts and David Gordon Green (adapting the memoir by Brad Land) are effective in illustrating how a young man might be sucked into this repellant world. In the film, Brad is a young man that has lost security and feels emasculated by the still healing scars from his beating. The world of the fraternity is, as they keep repeating, a world of brotherhood where they stand up for one another in the face of physical violence. Before the hazing starts, Brad is seduced by a world of casual sex and binge drinking. However, it’s after he’s passed the first round of initiation that Brad will be forced to realize that this brotherhood is just as brutal and ruthless as the very thugs that wounded him so deeply just months prior.
The heart and soul of Goat is the incredible performance by Ben Schnetzer, whose role here should be the final break out after bit parts in Warcraft and Snowden. Everything that’s circling through the mind of Brad is wordlessly conveyed by Schnetzer’s assured acting. Nick Jonas gives one of the best performances of his career, though it still is fairly uneven at times. There’s just something about Gus Halper and the character that he plays that just makes you want to punch him in the face. Halper really does embody the arrogance and privilege of his character is such slimy manner. Finally, there’s an amusing cameo by James Franco as a frat boy that is trying to recapture those faded glory days through a single night of alcoholic excess. It’s a minor role but one that underlines the film’s strong theme of destructive masculinity and arrested development.
Multiple scenes of Goat are hard to sit through, featuring some disgusting and vile moments of degradation in the name of masculine brotherhood. Andrew Neel presents this ugliness front and center, never daring to even modestly sugarcoat the ghastly behavior chronicled in Brad Land’s memoir. Goat doesn’t paint a pretty picture as to nature of these institutions, but it’s more important that it properly examines the insular and ugly side of the machismo that drives these people into brutal forms of hazing.
An unflinching look at the ugly side of masculinity, Goat can be tough to sit through with its ugly subject matter, but its lifted by the smart instincts of director Andrew Neel and a remarkable performance from star Ben Schnetzer.