America. Among its many proud institutions are fraternities, and among their proud traditions are hazing. To anyone outside the Greek system, hazing seems like cruel and unusual punishment. It’s not technically even codified, but if you call it a “rite of passage”, you can get away with it.
Goat is a movie about illegal abuses that are compounded with implicitly ratified treatments. It’s not a pleasant ride, but the horror at its core is this: there are some audiences who will come away thinking that every action performed by Sigma Phi is completely justified. Meditate on that.
Brad Land (Ben Schnetzner, Pride) leaves a party and is set upon by two men who beat him and steal his car. When Fall comes around and he goes to university, Brad pledges to Sigma Phi house at the insistence of his brother, Brett (Nick Jonas, TV’s Kingdom), only to find that the initiation process involves is a level of degradation that he had hoped never to experience again.
Based on the real Brad Land’s 2004 memoir of the same name, Goat doesn’t exactly play with concepts of masculinity or cycles of violence so much as it points at them and makes them entirely too credible. You hear enough about fraternities from other sources that it’s easy to believe that such incidents occur on a truly institutional level and that mere lip service is paid to cleaning them up. It’s the sort of movie where students will be interrupted from their class work because they should be drinking instead, and no one goes to college to study. It is a society of carefully cultivated ignorance and privilege and it is hard to imagine an ethnically diverse cast in these stiflingly rarified airs.
Goat is almost entirely free of women outside of brief early appearances from Brad’s love interest Leah (Virginia Gardner, Project Almanac) and a series of anonymous party girls, but it is blessedly free of the homoeroticism that some would consider quintessential to the genre. Nothing about Goat is sexy, and everything that occurs within the context of Sigma Phi activities is designed to discomfort, degrade or humiliate someone. It is hard to believe that anyone could feel good about participating in any of this, but it’s the culture, it’s taught, and it is designed to continue in perpetuity.
Schnetzner is proving himself a more chameleonic actor with each role he takes on, and though he’s not credible as a Jonas brother the two of them work well together. The rest of the cast, particularly Gus Halper (Kingmakers) as Brad’s sponsor Chance, are approximately as arrogant and unpleasant as they need to be. Under the direction of Andrew Neel (King Kelly), nobody comes off well, and everyone is a victim.
Goat is a brutal and miserable film that speaks to a broken element of American society that shows only tiny and incremental signs of ever improving. Even when it is at its most extreme, it feels painfully believable. It is a metaphor for the fraternity system itself: see Goat, imagine you’re going to have fun with James Franco and Nick Jonas’ arms, but you’ll just end up feeling sick about the whole thing.
Goat screens at the Sydney Film Festival, 8-19 June, 2016.
Directed by: Andrew Neel.
Starring: Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas, Virginia Gardner and James Franco.