Reviews

'Goat' Is a Film for its Time

Nick Jonas, Danny Flaherty, and Ben Schnetzer in Goat (2016)

Goat's universal horror is not its grisly depiction of "hell week" hazing, but the conditions that drive kids into the self-flagellation it requires.


Goat

Director: Andrew Neel
Cast: Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas, James Franco, Daniel Flaherty.
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Release date: 2016-12-20

Brad Land -- the autobiographical subject of director Andrew Neel's Goat -- is one of the most important film characters of 2016. Brad is not a coming-of-age boy genius or a pop culture icon. Rather, he's a quietly intelligent and sincere 19-year-old kid who, like so many his age, feels compelled to endure the brutal rituals of University socialization. In this regard, Goat's universal horror is not its grisly depiction of "hell week" hazing, but the institutional conditions which drive kids like Brad into the self-flagellation it requires. As it turns out, these are circumstances we can all relate to.

With a gentle countenance, bass voice, and natural earnestness, young actor Ben Schnetzer does a fine job of capturing Brad as a mellow kid with a blend of quick wit and absorptive intelligence. Schnetzer's subtly versatile range -- he blends just as easily into a rave as he would a quiet library research scene -- constructs Brad as an effective vessel for college life for both introverts and the more out-going alike.

In just about any studio college flick over the last 40 years, be it Animal House, Road Trip, or most recently Neighbors, a Hollywood scripted frat would have easily lionized Brad as a cool guy, as one of their own. But these films could best be seen as recruitment pitches for the Greek system, and more generally the college experience, in which inclusiveness is the norm. Goat is a scathing response to these works in that it strips the college experience into such raw zero-sum judgments, that what past audiences have been trained to appreciate as a more traditional young hero is rejected.

Indeed Goat's most masterful moments is when it puts Brad through a repetitive series of psychological hazes, all which lash out against his failure to fit neatly into stereotypical categories of collegiate masculinity. Early in the film, Brad refuses to stick around the frat house Phi Sigma Nu to watch two women make-out in exchange for coke; his biological brother and top Sigma Nu recruiter (Nick Jonas) disgustedly dismisses him for being "embarrassed". The audience's initial perception may be that this kind of judgment only lies at the frat house. Yet, when Brad suffers a brutal assault by two hitchhikers later that same evening, a Detective -- another figure of institutional authority -- offers a quick investigation only if Brad admits to the Detective's hunch that he was just another college kid involved in a drug-buy gone wrong. Brad's contemplation to take a semester off to deal with the traumatic effects of the incident is met with equal disregard: a chillingly silent dinner scene with his parents establishes their severe judgment as well.

While these scenes are uniformly solemn and delivered with enervating repetition -- Brad defies categorical expectation and gets coldly rebuked for it -- they are nonetheless emotionally poignant in emphasizing the speed which all institutional structures lash out fast zero-sum judgments. This unlabeled brand of hazing, taken over the course of several months in small town suburbia, can break down anyone into hostilely conformist behavior, even an initially easy-going and gentle guy like Brad.

Goat's ascetic visual treatment of the fictional Brookman University creates an unnerving plainness, which contributes to this point. Brookman University campus is nowhere near the quality of say, Felicity's fictional University of New York, in which the undergraduate halls were plushly accommodated, four-year dream incubators stocked with beautiful-nerds in search of tender relationships. This is not the early aughts, where grand opportunities seemed manifest for all college graduates.In this regard, Goat is a film for its time. Brookman is starkly captured as an overpriced suburban boot camp where one's distinction is not guaranteed. Plain brick buildings surround a small campus square. Brad's dorm room looks like a clinical work lab with white walls, cots, and desks. The campus's parking lots are the same as those surrounding mini-malls -- that's a nice foreshadowing of what's to come for most graduates four years later, at least $150K in the hole.

This stark visual backdrop is well used to darkly satirize Sigma Nu's elitist propaganda. Absent a beer bash or BBQ, an empty Sigma Nu doesn't look too different from the rest of the campus; the house just another average brick colonial with an inflatable pool set prominently on the front lawn. Inside Sigma Nu, the rooms are small and the basement is dark and dingy. Even the pledge initiation ceremony is cheap: a house member flicks on a crusty portable stereo to play, of all things, bag pipe music. And yet, as is trumpeted throughout the film, the Sigma Nu chapter represents the very best people you will ever know.

Of course, this dialogue is self-aggrandized nonsense, but Goat's established dissonance between rhetoric and reality conveys a more concerning message: in an insecure society at once obsessed with hierarchy and in short in supply of sufficient avenues toward distinction, relentlessly reinforced standards of what is Best -- however fabricated they may be -- is essential.

The second half of Goat -- a lengthy visceral depiction of Sigma Nu's "hell week" -- breaks off from a pointed character study into a more raw, multiple-point-of-view docudrama. Neel turns his attention to Brett's growing reservations about the most tortuous aspects of hazing, particularly when it regards his own younger brother. Brett's speeches about how hazing has become more severe from when he pledged, as well as numerous one-shots of his visible disapproval of beatings and sexual debasements, are entirely redundant. The audience can already see what's going on, and the brutality of it is more powerful when left unsaid and registered strictly from the audience's eyes.

Perhaps Neel believed Brett's point of view was necessary to both advance the plot -- yes, blood is thicker than frat -- and to also give the audience some sense of reprieve from the harrowing sequences spilling over with urine, mud, hot sauce and vomit. But continual revisits to Brett's perspective, even if Jonas does a serviceable job playing a once callow kid with a growing sense of self-awareness, has the inadvertent effect of watering down the film.

What would have been by far more interesting is if Goat stuck even more closely with Brad's mental and emotional breakdown. Here, the film misses an opportunity of showing the effects of "Hell Week" on Brad in the classroom, or on his social interactions outside of Sigma Nu. The same service could have been paid to Brad's co-pledge "Finch" (Danny Flaherty) -- the runt of the pledge litter, and thus the target of the worst torture. Finch's panicky dialogue to Brad about how quitting hell week would render him a quitter and abruptly end his newly invigorated social life is an interesting point. Nevertheless, we never see Finch as more than an overt symbol of weakness, and this shortcoming often places the film in shallower terrain when compared to its by far richer elements earlier on.

When Goat finally leaves its relentlessly visceral "Hell Week", the film itself becomes too frazzled. Rushing through its tight 96-minute run-time, Goat proceeds to wrap the story up with some unsubtle plot devices. The Lands become heroes, and some frat boys become villains. A whistleblower comes clean about fraternity hazing, and some sadistic brothers search for the "rat". It's all too easy to distance oneself from this material -- as may be the case for some of the more flagrantly villainous hazing rituals which could be dismissed in a "well, that's was never me" capacity. As a result, Goat's universal indictments of University socialization, as well as its nuanced character study of Brad, gets lost in the mix.

What's interesting, however, is that Goat manages to find its footing after these episodic series of excesses. For whatever the second half's flaws, Goat's final sequence is at once plangent, hopeful, and instructive. Indeed, be it as an accomplished storyteller or a college freshman, it's exceedingly easy to lose ones' self within standardized strictures. The key is to keep searching, keep questioning, and to never relinquish your individual narrative.

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