Film Review: ‘Goat’

Andrew Neel's relatively sensitive expose into the world of fraternity hazing will shock some, while leaving others wondering what the fuss is about.

Goat Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

In “Goat,” there are blood brothers, and then there are fraternity brothers, and the trick is figuring out which ones really have your back. (There are also Jonas brothers, but that’s another story.) Based on Brad Land’s harrowing anti-hazing memoir about an Ohio teen who’s abducted and beaten by thugs after a frat party, only to find himself undergoing even more demeaning abuse during Hell Week the following fall, this testosterone-drenched indie-movie adaptation feels like something that might have come out under the MTV Films banner a decade ago (back when the book was published), as director Andrew Neel can’t quite decide whether to indict or endorse the hard-partying behavior on display — painfully aware that half the audience has pledged or will pledge the Greek system.

Judging by legitimate gasps of concern from maternal types attending the film’s Sundance premiere, Land’s Cincinnati, Ohio-lensed expose will come as an eye-opener to a certain kind of moviegoer, finally breaking the code of silence that has kept such practices veiled in secrecy for so long. But Neel seems less interested in riling parents than he does in reaching those who are part of the problem, potentially sparking conversations about peer pressure and masculinity in America. But to pretend that the pledges (who voluntarily submit to such harassment) are somehow the victims in an institution of exclusion, objectification and underage substance abuse goes far beyond disingenuous, and the resulting film falls far short of actually surprising those who already know a thing or two about fraternities.

Granted, an innocent pledge does die as a result of being pelted with rotten fruit by his fraternity brothers (in the book, a would-be sorority girl also drowns, though the girls here are little more than sexual objects), but the hazing doesn’t feel nearly intense enough. Those expecting to see a goat defiled, for instance, will have to settle for a goat defiling one character’s dorm room. It all seems like child’s play compared to any number of boot-camp movies, from “Full Metal Jacket” to the recent “Coldwater.” When Brad (a career-launching role for relative newcomer Ben Schnetzer) worries aloud whether he might be a “pussy,” one can imagine some audiences actually agreeing with him.

Brad’s a nice guy, the sort who still believes in romance: He sabotages a one-night stand by telling his date “I think I love you” and treats a kiss with his long-unrequited high-school crush as a life-changing event (even though she disappears for the rest of the film). Frankly speaking, a guy like him has no business pledging an organization like Phi Sigma Mu, whose “gentlemen” members regularly get off using drugs and alcohol to seduce the sexiest girls on campus. That said, his slightly older brother, Brett (Nick Jonas, the baby among pop trio the Jonas Brothers), is a member, and Brad feels compelled to follow in his footsteps (though not by his parents, who have maybe half a minute’s screen time between them).

From the opening shots, which feature shirtless white boys jumping up and down in slow-motion (an image nearly as homoerotic as producer James Franco’s “The Feast of Stephen” short), “Goat” clearly wants to sensationalize the hazing experience. Sure enough, there are tests of physical endurance, excess drinking, mud wrestling, a record amount of vomiting and even stunts that involve urination and eating out of a dorm-room toilet bowl. Still, shot in a style that’s more seductive than gritty, none of it can hold a candle to reruns of “Revenge of the Nerds” or “Animal House,” frat classics whose sensibilities co-screenwriter David Gordon Green has channeled in his other work.

It all speaks to insecure young men’s desperate need for belonging, and the fact that they’re often willing to subsume their own identities (not to mention dignities) in order to feel accepted. Brad’s case is complicated by the fact that he had been recently beaten by townies, though he seems to have internalized the shame and obvious post-traumatic stress of that event, perhaps even counting on the frat to restore his damaged sense of masculinity. Such nuances are blessedly left unstated, leaving room for viewers to analyze and interpret his behavior as the experience unfolds.

The more interesting dynamic here is the one percolating between the two brothers, Brad and Brett, who are capable of sharing relatively intimate experiences — whether it’s Brad waking up in the same room as one of Brett’s naked conquests or being physically humiliated and psych-sodomized in front of his older sibling — but still can’t find the strength to talk about their emotions. That said, it’s the suggestion of vulnerability that makes both actors so strong in their respective roles, displaying a potentially sensitive dimension amid this gratuitous display of machismo.

Early on, we see Brett hooking up with anything that moves, though later, he’s the sole member of this meathead ensemble (commandeered by “Dirty Grandpa’s” Jake Picking) to find a conscience, insisting, “None of this matters!” Millions of actual fraternity alums would surely beg to differ, many of whom probably count the bonds made and lessons learned within that odd social construct as the most important aspect of their higher education. Still, it’s hard to find any justification for hazing, apart from the fact that having endured it themselves, no one has the nerve to break the chain.

Upon its publication, “Goat” caused quite a stir around the subject, and though the movie stands the potential to reach an even wider audience, the issue isn’t really in the headlines in quite the same way it was a decade ago. Still, with so many debates raging about violence, the film does burrow into the heart of a key question: Where exactly is all of America’s aggression coming from? Here, the Land brothers each make choices intended to break that cycle, while other characters merely feed the fire, whether it’s Brad’s masochistic roommate (and fellow pledge) Will, played by Danny Flaherty, or Franco in a short yet memorable cameo as a paradoxically charismatic yet deeply repressed Phi Sigma alum.

Film Review: ‘Goat’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 22, 2016. Running time: 102 MIN.

  • Production: A Killer Films, Rabbit Bandini, Great Point Media production. (International sales: Great Point Media, London.) Produced by Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Vince Jolivette, James Franco. Co-producers, Karrie O'Reilly, Iris Torres. Executive producers, Robert Halmi, Jim Reeve, John Wells.
  • Crew: Directed by Andrew Neel. Screenplay, David Gordon Green, Neel, Mike Roberts, based on the memoir by Brad Land. Camera (color), Ethan Palmer; editor, Brad Turner; music supervisor, Josh Kessler; production designer, Akin McKenzie; set decorator, Sarah Young; costume designer, Sarah Mae Burton; sound, Geoff Maxwell; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Eli Cohn; special digital effects, Hey Beautiful Jerk; visual effects director, Mark Szumski; stunt coordinator, Richard Fike; assistant director, SB Weathersby; casting, Susan Shopmaker.
  • With: Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas, Gus Halper, Danny Flaherty, Virginia Gardner, Jake Picking, Brock Yurich, Will Pullen, Austin Lyon, Eric Staves, James Franco.