Nextfest 2016: Goat, by David Bax
Andrew Neel’s Goat opens with a series of shots that are beautiful, terrifying and as eerily familiar as they are alien. In super slow motion, with no sound but the non-diegetic music as accompaniment, a group of shirtless young men jump and holler, jeering and gamboling, their faces contorted into expressions of anger and joy. We never see what exactly they’re reacting to but it has clearly inspired a kind of violent ecstasy. It’s intensely homoerotic, of course. Goat is a movie about a fraternity. Its homoeroticism is so obvious and constant as to become unremarkable. Neel is clearly not out to make a movie about such an obvious element of fraternity life. Instead, he aims to define and challenge our ideas of masculinity itself.
Ben Schnetzer stars as Brad, a college freshman looking to join the fraternity to which his older brother, Brett (Nick Jonas) already belongs. This process—after a bracing prologue set in the summer before school starts—is the entire focus of the movie. “Hazing” is too blunt a word to describe what these fraternity hopefuls endure. It’s an ever-escalating gauntlet of dangerous humiliations that they are free to quit at any time but never do. Why that’s the case is what interests the film.
Jonas is the biggest name in the cast (with the exception of a cameo by James Franco as a fraternity alumnus) and he proves more than capable of bearing the load when called to do so. Between this and TV’s Kingdom, he’s carving out a niche for himself as the thoughtful, sensitive male among brutes. The rest of the supporting cast is terrific, as well, particularly Gus Halper as the fraternity’s student leader and Danny Flaherty as Brad’s roommate and fellow pledge. Still, this is Schnetzer’s movie and he fittingly gives the most complex and shaded performance. Brad, like most real world teenagers, is not any one particular, recognizable type. He’s smart and shy but he’s also cut from the same tough, alpha cloth as his older brother (or at least he’s good at faking it when called for).
It’s called for a lot, as you might imagine, during the trials of joining a fraternity. The unrelenting abuse doled out by the current members and the equally unrelenting stubbornness displayed by the pledges are a heightened version of a routine that plays out in some form or another every day on playgrounds and in conference rooms the world over. Men feel constant pressure to prove something but what, exactly? Is it about proving your loyalty or your worth as a friend? When is it over? And does it come from some external force or from within?
My reaction, while sitting in the theater, implies that this need to display fortitude does indeed come from within (even if it’s rooted in external childhood conditioning). With each disgusting, painful task the freshmen are set, I found myself interrogating my own masculinity, mentally insisting that I could take that, I could endure, withstand. I wouldn’t wimp out. A lesser movie about hazing would cluck its tongue and put on a mask of sympathy for these boys, painting them as victims. Goat has the temerity to let us see them as they see themselves. As survivors.