Film Review – Goat
Andrew Neel’s latest feature Goat is an archetypically American film that explores the psychology of toxic masculinity. This dark indie debuted at Sundance, where it was met with some early buzz for its lead performances by the up and coming Ben Schnetzer (Warcraft, Punk’s Dead: SLC Punk 2) and ex-popstar Nick Jonas, both of whom play brothers in the film. Neel’s sparse and intimate direction along with the character-oriented screenplay, co-written by indie veteran David Gordon Green, creates for a brooding psychological drama that tries to find the humanistic and emotional instincts within those who perpetuate and instigate college fraternity hazing rituals.
The picture opens with the story’s primary character, 19-year-old Brad Land (Schnetzer), leaving his older brother Brett (Jonas) at a college house party, feeling out of place and off-put by the overwhelming debauchery of the setting. On his way out he agrees to drive home a pair of anonymous townies and as they lead him further down a darkly lit Midwestern dirt road, they force him to pull over, beating him within an inch of his life and stealing his car. This event, which is shot with graphic and blunt force, sets the tone for the entire movie and the consequences of this violent act echo through the beats of the plot.
Upon recovery, Brad undergoes a significant change in attitude, replacing his glasses with contacts, getting blackout drunk at summer parties and generally expressing himself with less passivity. This change manifests its ultimate commitment when he enrolls into college early to join his brother’s fraternity. After meeting his fellow pledges, what ensues is a series of bizarre and physically grueling humiliation tests performed in what is known by the older frat brothers as “Hell Week.” Amidst these brutal hazing rituals, Brad and Brett are torn in a struggle of conflicting interests where common decency, pride, trauma and loyalty are put through the ultimate game of chicken.
Goat undeniably highlights moments of powerful filmmaking, evoking imagery from cinematic hard-hitters like Pier Pasolini’s 1975 shocker Salo or 100 Days of Sodom, as well as the sexually charged work of Larry Clark and Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry—also produced under the roof of notable indie house Killer Films. Goat shines within the direction of individual scenes, such as the opening bashing sequence as well as the many quiet exchanges between Jonas and Schnetzer, both of whom are terrific throughout. But while the director is able to inject power and importance through mood, tone and performance, the film suffers from a few significant storytelling inconsistencies that keep it from being truly exceptional.
After seeing himself complacent in the violence towards his trigger-sensitive brother and the other freshman pledges, Jonas’ Brett has his own parallel coming-of-age where he begins to soften and learn that the fraternity life may not be consistent with his own values. This emotional arc isn’t treated with as much weight or significance as Brad’s journey towards finding his masculine confidence to move on from his trauma. In turn, Brett’s actions register more as a writing problem to be solved and less like believable character motivations. The choice to keep Schnetzer’s Brad the center of the movie’s consciousness doesn’t always lend to the story’s thematic strength.
The on-screen hazing, while shot with gritty and visceral angst, is never as extreme as the imagery always suggests. The film is locked into a grounded reality that doesn’t let this parable embrace genre in a way that could better punctuate the emotionally wretched tone of the movie. Every time the film wants us to think that the hazing will take us into truly outrageous or disturbing territory, the scene usually backs off and settles into something that (while perhaps unorthodox and somewhat reckless) never resonates as something far beyond what we might expect in such an environment. If these scenes were to step away from realism into the realms of the dark cautionary-tale it constantly teases us into believing it is, it could have given the Salo and Lord of Flies evocations even more emotional weight.
Despite it’s shortcomings, Goat is still a strong piece of drama even if it often leaves us waiting for the other shoe to drop. Schnetzer is given a lot to chew on as an actor, and the camera gives him enough room and breadth to dig deep into his character’s pathos. At times, his interiority and brooding reserve recalls the work of young alternative actors such as Brady Corbet and the late River Phoenix. This is precisely the type of performance that is likely to get the attention of many future casting directors and we can expect to see him in bigger projects. Jonas isn’t given as much to do, but his previous celebrity work neither distracted or felt like stunt-casting and he clearly committed to the project’s difficult subject matter.
With technology slowly replacing the workforce and competition diluted by our current economic reality, American masculinity has become increasingly hard to define in the internet age and the young have taken to cyber bullying and other extremes to define themselves and to connect. Goat taps into those kinds of alpha/beta frustrations and frames them within a personal story that aims to echo the zeitgeist. Even if the movie as a whole falls short of reaching greatness, the film gets to the heart of young male desperation, usually working better as a character piece than it does as a broad morality tale.