Goat harrowingly explores the hypocrisy of fraternal brotherhood, bearing witness to the ugly rights of passage that men must submit to into order to earn their badge of masculinity. In Andrew Neel‘s testosterone-fueled melodrama, ideas of modern masculinity are examined through the lens of the Phi Sigma Mu fraternity of the fictitious Brookman University as new arriving “goats” (that’s pledges to those who don’t speak frat) are victim to a brutal “hell week”.
Before embarking to Brookman, Brad (Ben Schnetzer) sees the frat through rose-colored glasses. They’re the all-singing, all-dancing ubermensch of the collegiate world. They get the girls. They throw the parties. Their union runs deeper than blood. At one of their many “great parties”, Brad foregoes a bump of coke and watching two drunk girls make out (seemingly not an irregularity at these kind of events) and decides to call it an early night. Leaving the party, a hoodie-clad man materializes into the low light of a streetlamp. He asks for a ride. Brad initially turns him down but some minor pestering later, obliges.
Within seconds of mentioning that this unidentified man just has to grab “his boy”, a cold wave of unease settles on the scene. It’s a foredrawn conclusion that not too soon after, Brad finds himself beaten and without a car in the middle of some abandoned plot. Terrified, alone and stripped of his dignity. This sets the scene for Brad’s ensuing identity crisis, reflected by his parallel struggles with masculinity and PTSD, and his eventual succumbing to the high-cost demands of the frat he wishes to join.
Watching over the events as a kind of capricious guardian is Brad’s cool older brother Brett (played confidently by Nick Jonas), who tempted Brad to join Phi Sigma Mu in the first place. Jonas impresses in the role, serving as the closest thing Goat has to a moral compass outside of Brad. When the Mu brothers go too far, there’s compassion present in Brett’s eyes that evades the peepers of most. Compassion that apparently has no place in the confines of this frat house.
But as the Sigma Mu hazing gets more and more psychologically and physically tormenting, the casual, almost unconscious one-upmanship spirals out of control. What’s almost worse is that these heinous acts of torture (the movie (maybe heavy-handedly) makes a none-too-casual reference to Guantanamo) are complete with smiles and mostly met with blind obedience.
The “born again” baptism into bro-hood and the accompanying birthright to continue the cycle of degradation makes a strong case for the kind of no holds barred exposé that Goat tries to offer up. Nothing – no amount of parties, no amount of girls – is worse this cost. The brothers jokingly refer to each other as”faggot”, barking “suck my cock!” at each other well past the point of the punchline. That’s assuming there ever was one. A scene involving James Franco as a veteran member grossly punctuates this fact.
What plays out is a kind of super-masculine steroid nightmare; one whose redundant exaggeration and escalation dips into the realm of the surreal, making it all the more difficult to swallow that the events depicted here within are culled from the true to life memoirs of Brad Land.
With insider’s knowledge of the covert circle of rights of passage such as “hell week” and screenwriter David Gordon Green wringing the inherently interwoven dichotomy of fraternity and abuse for all its worth, Goat functions a lot like condemnation. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Through Brad and Brett, we get a sense of two competing senses of brotherhood – that formed by blood and the other by bloodletting. As Brad becomes more and more ensnared by the machismo corkscrew of Phi Sigma Mu, their familial blood bonds are threatened. Which begs the ultimate question of Goat: why would anyone subject themselves to such hateful licentiousness under the guise of brotherhood? Further, what is it about the male experience propagates this base ideology of bonding by fire? Neel, Green and Land’s answer is crystalline and leaves little room for interpretation but maybe, just maybe, that’s more than alright.
CONCLUSION: Frat bros and Jonas bros populate Andrew Neel’s taxing melodrama Goat, an impregnable profile of the imposing weight of masculinity and the mental bill of fraternal hazing.