Directed by: Andrew Neel.
Written by: David Gordon Green & Andrew Neel & Mike Roberts based on the memoir by Brad Land.
Starring: Ben Schnetzer (Brad), Nick Jonas (Brett), Gus Halper (Chance), Danny Flaherty (Will), Virginia Gardner (Leah), Jake Picking (Dixon), Brock Yurich (Wes), Will Pullen (The Smile), Austin Lyon (Dave), Eric Staves (Baity), James Franco (Mitch), Jamar Jackson (The Breath), Kevin Crowley (Detective Burke).
Watching Andrew Neel’s Goat, I kept expecting the film to hit another level – to go just a little bit further than it does, and go from an average film to something more. Unfortunately, it never quite gets there – it’s never quite able to draw the connection between the toxic masculinity on display in the film and larger problems that are left unexplored. The film is about hazing in the college fraternity system – and there’s little doubt that the film does provide an unflinching look at the violence involved in the process – that goes beyond the good natured fun frats try to paint it as. But the film is so insular, that it never really connects this to the university system as a whole – how this sort of behavior can have more consequences, how universities implicitly support it, how it may connect to college sports, and how it can lead to things like the rape culture of many University campuses, where the female students become victims to the macho bullshit on display. There are few female characters of consequence in the film – all in the first act, and while they viewed by the frat members as little more than their own personal sexual playthings, the film also paints every one of them as willing participants. There are larger issues around the edges of Goat – but the film seems completely uninterested in them.
Goat stars Ben Schnetzer as Brad – a young man just out of high school, who is planning on attending the same university – and pledging the same fraternity – as his older brother, Brett (Nick Jonas). Brad is visiting his brother one day at a party, when he decides he’s had enough and goes to drive home – stupidly, he agrees to give a ride to two guys he doesn’t know, who end up leading him to a remote spot, where they beat the crap out of him, steal his wallet and his car. He goes to University that fall anyway – and does pledge the same fraternity – but perhaps suffering from PTSD from the incident, he is not fully prepared for the violence he has to endure as part of Hell Week.
The film has a traditional three act structure – and it’s probably strongest in the middle. The opening scenes are more standard – Brad wants to belong more than anything, sees how his brother does belong, and will do anything to get there. Yes, he’s suffering due to his getting beat up – and his crush on a girl (who, oddly, disappears fairly early on) - but he’s willing. At first, it’s just drinking – a lot of drinking, that leads to a lot of vomiting (this could be bad enough – no one in the film seems to know about alcohol poisoning, - but I digress) – but then it crosses over into psychological torment – making the pledges thinking they’re going to have eat shit (it’s a banana) or fuck a goat for instance – before going further into actual acts of violence – throwing fruit at the pledges seems harmless enough, I guess, but it ends with some serious consequences. The third act tries to outline those consequences – but it almost seems like an afterthought.
Schnetzer is a star in the making – he was very good in Pride a couple of years back, and he showed up in Oliver Stone’s Snowden recently. He’s the real deal, and he does his best to anchor Goat in one person’s believable reality. Strangely though, focusing the film on Brad – who may have PTSD unrelated to the frats may actually hurt the films ultimate point – perhaps Brad would be better able to deal with the punishments dished out had he not just gone through something that exacted that psychological toll on him. Nick Jonas, of Jonas Brothers fame, isn’t nearly as good as Schetzer – although to be fair to him, his role is underwritten – he goes from the ultimate frat dude bro to concerned brother to man with a conscience, but the film spends so little time with him as a character, his transformation is almost entirely all off camera. James Franco shows up for a cameo as a frat dude from the past – class of 2000 – who cannot let go of his glory years, and it’s the type of performance you get Franco to do – he’s fine as this outwardly macho, inwardly completely insecure and pathetic, character.
What I wish about Goat is that it would have ventured beyond the frats a little bit – at least in terms of how the frats interact with the University itself. Classes are mentioned, but we never see anyone in them – the administration and faculty are not in the movie until the end – and then, they seem way more concerned than actual news stories about frats have portrayed them – they seem, almost, effective – and essentially do the right thing – which is certainly not the impression you get in docs like The Hunting Ground, when young women complain about being assaulted at frat parties.
What Goat does well is show this culture of toxic masculinity – this cycle of humiliation, than the fraternities continue to inflict on their new members – and actually seem to increase the punishment year-to-year. After all, they went through it, so the new guys should have to as well – otherwise, what’s the point. Goat isn’t interested in larger issues though – issues that affect everyone on a college campus, even if its roots are in these frats. And that’s a shame – because that’s where the real story is.