Hot off the presses, it’s a tale of violence in betrayal among fraternity brothers! Well, if we were in 1954 and someone wrote a story about fraternity hazing, that’d be the tagline for the film adaptation. But now, in 2016, we get an EDM-soaked and intriguingly sullen look at gender dynamics in a fraternity house. Goat may be ripped from the headlines, following the multitude of stories about rape and abuse at frat houses nationwide, but it’s a movie that constantly tries to divert from that kind of attention to diminishing returns. Instead, it’s a subdued and sometimes touching view at how past traumas are as incurable as the psychological and physical violence perpetrated by frat members nationwide.
After months and months of goading, Brad Land (Ben Schnetzer), finally agrees to join his brother’s fraternity upon the start of freshman year at a local Ohio university. Brett (Nick Jonas), his brother, is a bit reluctant to have Brad undergo a brutal pledge week after his incident, but he also believes the “brotherhood” of the frat may make his life happier and more fulfilling. Based on the real Brad Land’s memoir about the same vicious beating by thugs and the ensuing “Hell Week” when he pledges, Goat is a dramatization of the events that took place in Brad’s life.
Director Andrew Neel seems at odds with how to present Land’s memoir. On one hand, he does his darndest to condemn the indescribable acts new pledges had to go through during “Hell Week.” On the other hand, he constantly fumbles the reasoning behind such disgusting acts. It isn’t that the pledges are made to binge drink or sleep in less than desirable conditions, it’s ages of animosity and control running rampant and unadulterated. The one glimpse we get at how that animosity is passed down is a scene in which James Franco—playing the former frat president—stumbles in to ensure Brad (of course, during a drunken rambling) that brotherhood is at the forefront at the frat despite the raucous hazing.
There’s an early scene in Goat that kind of strikes me as the thesis for the whole film. Brad sits lonely in his car after being interrogated by a police detective about his incident. He keeps slapping himself in the face, self-inflicting harm out of some sense of post-traumatic stress and/or depression. If I were to take this verbatim, then the rest of the film would be kind of null and void. There’s nothing really signifying a turn in Brad’s life where he decides to take back control of things and heal from his past and present trauma. If anything, it’s brought on by Brett, who decides to take it upon himself to ensure Brad’s safety during “Hell Week.” If we are to believe that Brett knew of the violence during “Hell Week” and still promoted his brother’s interest in joining the fraternity despite his recent trauma, then shouldn’t we be feeling a bit conflicted towards Brett? Andrew Neel doesn’t really think so. He’s much more invested in trying to bring a bleak flair to the actual violence instead of the effects it has on the victims.
Having said that, there’s plenty to like about Goat. For one, Ben Schnetzer’s performance bolsters the film and almost pushes it to places it’s not willing to go. He’s the perfect fit for someone who has to be understandable as a victim while interesting to watch as the trepidation on his face grows. That one aforementioned scene with James Franco also functions incredibly well as an indictment of frat culture as a deciding force behind how you will live your life post-college. You may leave the “brotherhood” after four years, but it never actually leaves you. Nick Jonas, on the other hand, is a bit miscast as someone whose growing uneasiness with his own frat’s actions forces his hand in protecting his brother. From the get-go we see him being protective of Brad, so it’s all a matter of guessing when he’ll become a turncoat.
Goat could function as a great companion piece to Spring Breakers if it decided on what movie it wanted to be. But instead, it’s a meandering attempt at exposing a nationwide sickness.