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The hazing process at universities often come under fire when things get out of hand, and many colleges have take efforts to outright ban the practice. Still, in terms of entertainment, hazing is practically a requirement in coming of age frat stories. Mostly played for laughs, it’s rare when a film takes the time to consider the consequences and implications of these rituals. Goat exists primarily to showcase the nature of the beast while purposefully excising some key aspects that might have given this a more impactful sense of place and timelessness.
It begins at a party where we meet Brad (Ben Schnetzer), a good-looking young man who refuses hits of cocaine and a promise of group sex, only to offer a ride to a couple of strangers who in turn bring him to a deserted road and savagely beat him, then steal his car. Through it all, he doesn’t once fight back or lift a hand in defense. While he recovers and tries to shake it off, the effects are long term, and devastating.
It is interesting then that weeks later, he chooses to go to college where his brother Brett (Nick Jonas) is already enrolled and pledges to be a member of his fraternity Phi Sigma Mu. That means enduring Hell Week, a grueling hazing process that he knows will be especially difficult but feels he must do. The rituals are rigorous, mostly involving extreme amounts of alcohol and humiliation, and unsurprisingly, bouts of mild violence that naturally have him flashing back to his assault. It also hardens him but it strains his relationship with Brett, who feels guilty for staying at the party instead of going home with his brother. He feels protective of him now and when the hazing becomes decidedly aggressive, he protests. While he wants to settle the matter with the thugs and keep his brother out of the frat, Brad wants to see it through. But a tragedy along the way paints the fraternity into a corner and changes everything.
Directed by Andrew Neel (written by David Gordon Green), there are few surprises in this well-acted and directed film that sees the usual hazing torments with a line of hostile and pumped up frat boys and eager, timid underwear-clad pledges. The scenes in the frat house and those involving the hazing are perfunctorily harsh and demeaning, militaristic and cold, enclosed in a highly rigid circle that sees nearly no external presence of any other factors. Parents are all but invisible, teachers and classmates relegated to blurry images in the backgrounds and the school itself almost entirely unseen. This is about the fraternity only, and the film ensures that this is the most important thing not only to the story but to these cadets, one of whom even admits that it’s this or nothing; he’s getting sex for the first time in life and it has nothing to do with his face but rather the pin on his lapel.
Straight away, there are some terrific performances here, with Schnetzer a mesmerizing actor who deserves credit for keeping this as compelling as it is. As his character battles with self-doubt and insecurities about why he let himself be beaten, we sense that he knows but is terrified because of it. There is a haunting moment with him alone in his car that will shake you. Schnetzer embodies that fear well and the hollow attempts to mask it in front of others, even as the days make him a darker figure. Jonas too is well cast, giving Brett significant presence with sideways glances and assuring eyes, he is the voice of reason that speaks for us as well as we watch and wonder at the meaning of it all. He’s got a long career in front of him.
The film can’t seem to find a balance though with the greater influence of the frat on the boys and the larger weight of the real world beyond its walls. These young men seem like abandoned boys on an isolated island devoid of proper supervision or even contact with a civilized society. Furthermore, the way women are portrayed, or rather their near absence in the film other than as bodies for sex, might seem practical for a house that has members chanting male solidarity (in a disturbing but engrossing moment with a cameo by James Franco), but without them shown as a more substantial element in these boy’s lives, seems like a missed opportunity.
Goat has a lot going for it and could be the subject of a deeper conversation when it’s over, given the outcome of an easily-seen yet inevitable conflict, but it lacks the real impact it might have had, especially with the brilliant opening.
Director: Andrew Neel
Writers: David Gordon Green, Brad Land (memoir)
Stars: Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas, Gus Halper