Movies about extreme torture and abuse have been as divisive and controversial as just about any subgenre in the cinemasphere. While many film enthusiasts regard Pier Paolo Pasolini’s impossibly grotesque Salo (1975) as an essential cinematic work, most people aren’t able to stomach the debauchery on display, let alone glean a shred of value or virtue from it. Torture is uncomfortable subject matter, and yet, movies like The Last House On the Left (1972), Funny Games (1997), Audition (1999), Hostel (2005), and many more have examined human suffering and mutilation with artistic intention, and perhaps improbably, found an audience and general critical acclaim.
Now, Andrew Neel, director and co-writer of horror-drama Goat, offers his take on the nature of savagery and degradation. Based on a 2004 memoir by Brad Land, the movie follows a young man who’s subjected to the terrors of the most deplorable of all campus traditions, the infamous fraternity “hell week”, in which pledges, or “goats”, endure a mind-numbingly brutal series of hazing rituals, all in the name of a twisted notion of brotherhood and manhood.
Our proxy is the unassuming, dorky Brad (Ben Schnetzer) who, after a traumatizing campus abduction, is drawn to the promise of protection and camaraderie at Phi Sigma Mu, to which his older brother, Brett (Nick Jonas), is a member. This, of course, leads him into the trenches of the fraternity’s infernal initiation process, where he and a group of similarly naïve pledges are forced to roll in the mud like pigs, beat the snot out of each other, sleep bound together in dark cellars, and get phallic miscellany shoved in their mouths while blindfolded.
It goes without saying that the movie is hard to watch, by design. It’s an exposé meant to blind us with depravity in hopes of illuminating just how idiotic this long-standing staple of college life is, and Neel makes his point resoundingly. He observes the hazing rituals unblinkingly, but the impact of the imagery feels muffled due to a storytelling imbalance. The emotional stakes revolve around Brad and Brett, and while the actors have chemistry and do a good job with the material (especially Schnetzer, who gives his everything in the most unsettling moments), the relationship feels cursory and overshadowed by the overwhelming scenes of violence and humiliation.
A movie like last year’s The Stanford Prison Experiment ratcheted up the intensity by using its characterizations to sink in its emotional hooks, and even more effectively, using the camerawork, editing, and sound to make you feel like you’re a participant in the onscreen events. Goat doesn’t have the same effect. Though the imagery will undoubtedly rattle you to the core, there isn’t that sense that you’re in the muck, experiencing the hazing with the pledges. It comes close to feeling that way at times — as when the boys are covered in mud, collapsed on each other in a barn after a long day of puking, begging, and crawling — but the camera will then suddenly cut to a distraught Brett, an onlooker, putting us in his shoes. This emphasizes his brotherly concern but breaks the sense of immersion.
Aside from these occasional distractions, however, Neel’s visual style is gripping, evocative, and inspired. The sensational opening shot sees a horde of shirtless frat bros crowded in on the camera, screaming until the veins on their necks and foreheads look like they’re ready to burst, all in nauseating slo-mo. It’s like something out of an artsy horror movie, perfectly emblematic of the animalistic insanity that awaits. Neel’s directorial gifts don’t stop there, however, as he guides Schnetzer to a career-boosting performance. Take a look at the young actor’s performance as an outgoing, ass-kicking Irish activist in Pride (2015) and then watch how meek and guarded and troubled he is in Goat. His range is impressive.
Goat has its share of inconsistencies (producer James Franco makes a completely unnecessary cameo), but the power of the story is undeniable, especially considering the terrifying fact that things like this happen all the time on campuses across the country. Most are already keenly aware of how disgusting and deplorable hazing is, but Neel’s film serves as a wake-up call for those who still perpetuate the tradition or don’t view it as a deadly serious issue.