Movie Review: ‘Goat’

Review by Keith Watson

Last year, in one of the odder scandals in recent memory, David Cameron, Britain’s priggish Tory jackal of a prime minister (since replaced by Theresa May) was accused of having placed his penis in the mouth of a dead pig as part of his initiation into Oxford’s Piers Gaveston Society—a decadent secret society seemingly designed to allow the UK’s future power elite to bind themselves together in mutual blackmail. The allegation has so far been completely uncorroborated, but it nevertheless touched on a widely-held belief that fraternal societies are just fronts for ritual violence, intimately commingled with sex. Frats, in other words, are less about binding men together than about providing cover for bolstering masculine power, over women (in the form of sex and, in many cases, rape) and over men (in the form of cruelly violent hazing).

This view is shared by the makers of “Goat,” a cautionary tale about fraternities’ self-replicating system of toxic masculinity, in which a group of pledges is subjected to seemingly endless brutality, including sexual humiliation, violent harassment, and incredible amounts of forced drinking. The end goal? To be a member of Phi Sigma Mu, the biggest men on campus. Phi Sigs have the best parties, fuck the hottest girls, and are treated like kings by their classmates. (A cameo by James Franco as a pathetic, aging brother who hasn’t quite put the frat lifestyle behind him suggests the future may not be so bright, however.)

Brad (Ben Schnetzer) pledges to follow in his older brother Brett’s (Nick Jonas) footsteps and, even more, to prove his manliness. “Goat” is framed by Brad’s traumatic run-in with a group of townies who beat him to a bloody pulp and steal his car. Because Brad is a man, and men don’t talk about their feelings—they are told to stop being a “pussy” if they show any signs of weakness—he never fully deals with the trauma of the event, instead throwing himself into Phi Sig’s excruciating hazing rituals to prove his mettle. These hazing scenes, which take up at least a third of the film’s runtime, are repellant and compelling in roughly equal measure. Even when “Goat” is at it’s most repulsive, it’s easy to see how a frat might use the film as a reference for Hell Week ideas.

Essentially, it’s fratbro torture porn, “Hostel” for the Greek crowd. And like the best films of that much-maligned genre, “Goat” borrows liberally from real-life torture techniques perpetrated by the U.S. government, including overt allusions to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, as well as to the empathy-deadening techniques of military basic training. The film suggests the testosterone-drenched insularity of fraternities as a synecdoche for America’s official organs of violent repression, from the military to the CIA to the local police. The culture enables its most vicious members, effectively validating their brutality by looking the other way and rallying behind their own when something goes wrong.

Director Andrew Neel, who co-wrote the screenplay (based on Brad Land’s true-life memoir) with David Gordon Green and Mike Roberts, manages to suggest all of these wider themes while keeping the narrative narrowly focused. His style is unflashy and at times a bit overly literal, but he does effectively capture how violence can easily escalate within an institution whose prime directive is to quash all empathy. Whether “Goat” is a fair depiction of fraternities is certainly up for debate—some of the practices depicted here have been widely reported, such as locking a group of pledges in a room with a keg and no food and refusing to let them out until they tap all the beer—but surely this is an extreme case.

Schnetzer and Jonas help to ground the film, turning in remarkably convincing—and at times affecting—performances that capture the ambivalence and ambiguity of the frat experience. Guys who join frats aren’t all brutish meatheads or privileged blue bloods (though both of these stereotypes are represented in the film), and one of “Goat”’s strengths is in demonstrating how even relatively normal, well-adjusted guys can get sucked into a strange and brutal culture. “Goat” is ultimately less about frats per se than about the ability of men to create hierarchical institutions that sanction cruelty. If Neel sometimes overstates his case (including in the film’s teary denouement), he still deserves plenty of credit for probing into the nature of socialized brutality.

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