goat_1Year: 2016
Director(s): Andrew Neel
Writer(s): David Gordon Green, Andrew Neel, Brad Land, Mike Roberts
Region of Origin: US

Rating: R
Digital, Color, 96 mins

Synopsis: Reeling from a terrifying assault, a 19 year-old boy enrolls into college with his brother and pledges the same fraternity. What happens there, in the name of “brotherhood,” tests the boy and his loyalty to his brother in brutal ways. (Source)

Prestige. Loyalty. Brotherhood. Hazing. If the latter in that sequence feels out of place to you, then you’re not alone. It’s the relation between these four ideas that centers Andrew Neel’s Goat, chronicling two disparate brothers and what happens during one frat’s “hell week” initiation. Playing out like a very loose spiritual successor to Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Neel doesn’t shy away from the sex, drugs or violence typically associated with collegiate fraternizing, but ultimately finds a layer of existential angst hiding underneath it all. The results are shocking, but also sobering, with star Ben Schnetzer bringing true-life figure Brad Land to life in a way that’s haunting. Despite the singular subject mater, Neel’s film is timeless, questioning the nature of brotherhood and the unsaid toxicity behind certain types of masculinity.

After leaving a party late one night, Brad Land (Ben Schnetzer) unwittingly gives two strangers a ride. They eventually steal his car and wallet, while leaving him for dead on the side of a road. Traumatized deeply by the experience, Brad begins to question his own self-worth and identity, with word of his attack quickly spread throughout. Though initially planning on delaying his studies, he’s encouraged by his older brother, Brett (Nick Jonas), to return to school and join up with his fraternity, Phi Sigma Mu. After arriving on campus to see his brother and companions treated like rockstars during a party, Brad is won over and eager to pledge. His motivations and their implications are tested, however, once hell week starts, with Phi Sigma Mu’s unsettling initiations driving him to the brink and turning him into something he despises.

The sly thing about Neel’s film is that it uses the idea of hazing to explore something much deeper, pitting family vs. frat, and in turn, finding its heart amidst the unsettling acts which occur. After lulling Brad and the viewer with Phi Sigma Mu’s hard partying and seemingly tight camaraderie, things get increasingly difficult to watch, as hell week begins and the pledges’ lives spiral into constant dehumanization and humiliation. “All my strength is in my union”, says Phi Sigma Mu’s oath, and though each brother is willing to throw fists for each other (while still considering themselves gentlemen above all), the torment they’re willing to put each other through is alarming. As the focus on the daily abuse being thrown at Brad and each pledge (also dubbed goats) intensifies, Neel and screenwriter David Gordon Green craft a harrowing journey into Brad’s inner world of self doubt, as well as his attempt to rebuild confidence through outer reputation. Brad’s struggle with PTSD and his transformation are troubling, yet oddly cathartic and sympathetic, uncovering the pitfalls of blind masculinity and obedience. As the story’s personal stakes ratchet up to disturbing levels, we’re left with a portrait of how differently some of us confront trauma, how it marks us for life, and that moving forward is a choice fraught with its own set of trials.

goat_2The film is well cast across the board, but it’s star Ben Schnetzer who grounds the entire thing, conveying Brad’s inner struggle with emotional clarity. Since the entire thing is from Brad’s perspective, it helps that Schnetzer is a commanding presence, earning our sympathy by making his struggle feel urgent and raw. We relate to him throughout and understand why he allows himself to be continually punished. When he stands up for himself, we want to root for him. Nick Jonas stands on his own as Brad’s brother Brett, who is initially Brad’s polar opposite, before switching places with him. It’s a believable transformation, and the pair keep us invested with their great chemistry. Danny Flaherty as Brad’s roomie, Will, adds conviction, while Gus Halper’s Chance is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, turning with the flick of a switch. James Franco has a scene-stealing cameo as Mitch, this film’s version of Dazed and Confused’s Wooderson (alright, alright, alright!), an elder who momentarily returns to Phi Sigma Mu for the thrill of it.

Despite the animalistic rage and excess on screen, Goat is layered, peeling back its ideas with restraint and resonance. This isn’t a carefree party film, but one that lays fraternity life bare, illustrating the consequence behind every action, as well as relationships which sink when faced with inconvenience. Existing somewhere between allure and dread, Neel’s film balances its ideas well, calling out the cruelty innate in all of us, but also the hope and compassion.

SG