[This is a re-post of my Goat review from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. The movie opens in limited release and is available on VOD starting today.]
Fraternity culture has been a part of our country for a long, long time now, but it’s gone through a number of evolutions over the years. It’s come to the forefront in the media as of late due to the rampant sexual assault on campuses across the country, and just as Animal House captured the party atmosphere of fraternity life in the 1970s, director Andrew Neel’s searing, dark drama Goat chronicles the perversion of “brotherhood” that’s found in a number of fraternity houses. Moreover, in addition to tackling hazing head on, Neel takes the opportunity to explore issues of masculinity against the backdrop of fraternity life, resulting in a film that’s much more substantial than a simple takedown of frat culture.
Based on the memoir of Brad Land and written by Neel, Mark Roberts, and David Gordon Green, Goat follows a 19-year-old named Brad (Ben Schnetzer) who, reeling from a brutal assault after visiting his brother at college (Nick Jonas), enters his first semester and decides to pledge his brother’s fraternity. A somewhat sensitive, trusting guy, Brad’s assault was a direct result of his friendliness to a stranger, and during the months of his recuperation he begins to resent the fact that he never fought back against his attackers, making subtle personality changes to assert his masculinity.
When he begins “Hell Week” at college—the week during which pledges are put through hell in order to weed out those that aren’t strong enough to join—the familiar faces that Brad came to know through his brother Brett disappear and are replaced by angry, commanding, berating men who begin a rigorous hazing process that runs the gamut from drinking insane amounts of alcohol to being physically assaulted. It’s at times uncomfortable to watch, but Neel never revels in the depravity or bombards the viewer with cues that judge those doing the hazing. His visual approach is documentary-like in nature, observing and letting the young men’s actions speak for themselves.
As the pledgship goes on, the rituals become more intense and Brad’s brother, Brett, attempts to look out for Brad and lessen the intensity of the hazing, much to Brad’s chagrin. Brett starts to become disillusioned with fraternity life as Brad starts to feel like he’s part of a real brotherhood despite the irony of how his future brothers are treating him. This relationship between Brad and Brett is the heart of the film, and it develops in a manner that’s both unexpected and wildly compelling.
Having been in a fraternity myself, I can attest that much of the film’s overall atmosphere is pretty accurate, if a lot of the smaller details are less so. Obviously things get overly dramatic, and I personally wasn’t subjected to any amount of hazing (my fraternity actually stuck to the strict “no hazing” policy), but it’s clear that things on this level do go on in some campuses across the country, and seeing as how this is based on a memoir, the experience does seem rather personal.
While I do wish the film could have delved into other issues surrounding fraternity culture, like privilege or the deeply upsetting sexual assault epidemic, Neel’s interest in holding a mirror to how men deal with emotions and problems of masculinity against the backdrop of fraternity life is nevertheless a fascinating and admirable effort. The expectations that men put on each other, and the ridicule that follows any signs of sensitivity in some circles can likely be singled out as factors leading to other larger issues that we see in men, like violence. Juxtaposing this with hazing culture and “frat life” only further illuminates the danger that this lack of emotional expression poses.
After a standout turn in the underrated class warfare drama The Riot Club, Schnetzer gives an absolutely star-making performance in Goat, proving that this guy is just waiting to break out in a big way. The subtle signs of doubt, frustration, and fear with which he imbues the character are brilliant touches that only add to the sense of tension in many of the film’s more intense scenes, and seeing him wrestle with wanting to be himself but also wanting to be accepted is at times agonizing. Jonas is also solid as older brother Brett, showing more dimensionality than one might expect. And there’s also a fantastic James Franco cameo that will ring all to true to anyone who’s ever spent time around a fraternity.
Neel, meanwhile, has crafted what could be his first major crossover hit, as he layers the film with a sense of darkness and dread that is wildly effective but never drowns out the rest of the picture. This movie is compelling whether you have any frame of reference for fraternity life or not, and the dark twists and turns it takes only heighten the emotional impact of Brad’s journey—although the story begins to lose a bit of steam towards the end, softening the blow a tad. But Neel doesn’t beat the viewer over the head with any sort of “fraternities are bad” message or craft the movie as a “takedown” piece, instead simply letting the story and characters make the larger thematic points themselves. This maturity in the filmmaking goes a long way to landing some of the film’s bigger points.
By asking what it means to be masculine under the guise of fraternity life, Neel attempts to get to the root of the problem with much of this culture. There’s no mistaking the fact that some fraternities have become a dangerous breeding ground for violent behavior, and while the film could have benefitted by addressing the sexual assault issue, its chronicle of hazing through the eyes of a young man suffering from a recent trauma is nevertheless effective in its own right.