Son of Saul remains one of the more memorable films from last year, and it’s because of how it was done: it’s harrowing to watch because it shoves the viewer front and center into its violence—physical and psychological. Goat, the film adaptation of Brad Land’s memoir about his experience with fraternity hazing, deals with a different subject altogether but works the same way: it’s difficult to watch, and it makes its points exactly because it’s difficult to watch.
High school senior Brad (Ben Schnetzer) is sensitive, naive, and kind of aimless. After leaving a party at his older brother Brett’s (Nick Jonas) frat house because it’s “getting weird”—he wants no part in pounding booze, snorting blow, or watching a live sex show—Brad agrees to give a lift to a sketchy townie (Will Pullen) who approaches him as he’s walking alone to his car. It’s just up the street in a small college town, so what can happen? Sketchy townie has a friend (Jamar Jackson), and the encounter goes somewhere Brad wasn’t expecting: they make him pull off the road, beat the shit out of him, and run off with his ATM card and his car.
The investigating officer (Kevin Crowley) is skeptical when Brad reports the incident—he suspects Brad is not telling him the whole story. The experience doesn’t sit well. On the fence about college and feeling like a self-described “pussy,” Brad decides to enroll at the school where Brett goes—and pledge his fraternity, Phi Sigma Mu. The guys in the house talk a lot about brotherhood, but something is off. Brad goes forward with rush week, anyway—and even motivates his dorm roommate, Will (Danny Flaherty), to rush (a.k.a. pledge) along with him. They become “goats,” which we learn is another word for pledges. Led by their “master” Dixon (Jake Picking), things get increasingly degrading and barbaric for the goats as they move through “hell week.” What is Brad trying to prove, and to whom?
Goat is brutal. With the opening shot—a pack of shirtless college boys jumping up and down in slow motion, participating in some fraternity ritual and looking more like a troop of apes than a group of students—director Andrew Neel sets the tone and sticks to it all the way through. The hazing rituals involve a slew of nastiness: face slapping, mudwrestling, and cages are the least of it. James Franco, one of the film’s producers, makes an appearance as Mitch, an older Phi Sig alum who never left town. Amusing on the surface, it doesn’t take long to see that Mitch is pathetic. The best thing about the film is Brad and Brett’s relationship, which becomes strained once the latter sees the former going through hell week. The whole cast is impressive—particularly Jonas, who’s made some strides since his stint on last season’s Scream Queens.
Goat emits a whiff of Reefer Madness sensationalism—I was never in a frat so I’ve never gone through anything like hell week and can’t speak to it with any personal experience (though I have friends who were in fraternities, and most of them withdrew for one reason or another). Regardless, I found Goat provocative not so much for taking on hazing and asking why anyone would put up with it, but for raising questions about bigger and broader things like groupthink and pack mentality, societal permissiveness, what “brotherhood” means, masculinity, and how it all interacts with the primal instinct inside each of us. If nothing else, Goat serves as a springboard for discussing a number of topics after the show.
(Music Box) B+