You could call Andrew Neel’s Goat an examination of toxic masculinity, and you could also call The Wolf of Wall Street a portrait of wealth privilege. The trouble with buzz phrases is that they never quite seem to cut it. In the case of the former, “toxic” has limited application: You better believe the poison spewed by the film’s supporting cast of frat boy douchebags is self-produced, but you’re kidding yourself if you think their bullshit is easily ameliorated. A juice fast can’t cure machismo. Neither can antivenom. Don’t blame a person for wishing, of course, but the language we use to talk about destructive male tendencies does a poor job of articulating just how destructive those tendencies are. At least we have the movies, right?
Goat is based on a novel of the same name, the memoirs of one Brad Land, a former frat brother for Kappa Sigma who put his experiences with the Greek system on paper as a way of working through them. Land’s novel is an act of self-therapy. Neel’s movie is an act of abuse, inflicted on members of his audience in much the same way that its graphic recreations of frat hazing rites are inflicted on bright-eyed pledges. If you’re the type to feign unflappability, then Goat’s coterie of frivolous barbarity may come off as standard: Kappa Sig’s initiates are forced to drink until they puke, subjected to verbal assaults upon their sexuality and manliness, forced to eat things blindfolded most of us would rather not eat at all (“shit,” for example, where “shit” means “a banana soaked in the toilet”), and so on and so forth. This all happens at first before, then alongside, the golden showers, and then there’s the goat.
Stop there: Don’t imagine any further. That’ll make you think twice about watching Neel’s film, and you should not think twice about watching Neel’s film, messy and often a touch too muted though it may be. Goat could probably have stood for a 15-minute trim off its 90-minute running time, being too slack in all areas that don’t revolve around Kappa Sigma’s idea of fun, but the blunt force power of the film’s fraternity calumnies makes up for its mild flabbiness. So too do its two lead performances from Ben Schnetzer and, of all people, Nick Jonas, respectively playing Brad and Brett, the brothers Land. If you’ve seen Pride, you’re already well-acquainted with Schnetzer’s flourishing talent, and thus less than surprised to hear that he’s terrific in Goat, too. You might be more shocked at the thought of a Jonas brother, any Jonas brother, turning in better-than-expected work as an actor.
There you have it, then. Nick is good. He’s really good as the elder Land, though he only has a fraction of Schnetzer’s screen time. As the younger Land, Schnetzer is the foundation of Goat’s tale of traumatized collegiate boyhood. The film commences as he’s beaten up by a pair of white trash thugs, who mug him and steal his car after he makes the foolish gesture of giving them a ride home after a party. That ordeal follows Brad throughout the remainder of the picture, which sees him enroll at the same school and rush the same frat as Brett. There are two plot components to consider in that synopsis: The first deals with two actual brothers drifting apart as they bond with their adopted frat brothers, and the second hovers furtively around Brad’s ongoing and unspoken duress.
Sort of. As Brad is sucked into K-Sig’s orbit with promises of faux brotherhood (plus all of the benefits frat members are entitled to, which summed together add up to entitlement itself), Brett slips away from it. They’re on opposite poles. Brad is desperate for both the protection that Kappa Sigma can offer him and for the self-validation. Brett, by contrast, is able to see the frat for what it is: an institution built for personal gratification via reckless indulgence. Goat digs deep beneath the surface of the corrupted frat spirit, but dreamily so, reenacting the worst frat rituals with startling, stomach-churning clarity unseen in its quieter moments. Like Brad, the film plays with its cards close to the vest, so we’re unsure of whether Neel means to indict frat life or court our sympathy for the lost young men who are seduced by that life.
Either way, Goat works when it works and drifts the rest of the time. A tighter film would cut away all scenes of the Lands’ pre-college days, save for Brad’s assault, and remove all references to that era wholesale. They go nowhere. They say nothing. It’s the fratrocities that grab our attention through sheer shock power, which feels like a remarkable accomplishment when The Challenge gives vapid and horrible human beings the chance to visit untold horrors on themselves and each other for cash, all in the name of entertainment. (Is watching Brad and his pledges sleep in a bundle of frosh flesh really any worse than watching Johnny Bananas eat cow tongue? Maybe T.J. Lavin is the most brutal pledge master of all.)
Goat’s depiction of unchecked and amoral alpha male egotism is devastating. Its opening image, a slow-mo shot of shirtless boys screaming in a cluster, their chest muscles clenched, the veins in their necks and foreheads fit to burst, says it all. What Neel shows us isn’t fraternity. It’s a barnyard chorused by barking, braying and snarling, an animal house we’ll never want to go back to.
Director: Andrew Neel
Writers: Andrew Neel, David Gordon Green
Starring: Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas, Gus Halper, Jake Picking, Austin Lyon, Daniel Flaherty, James Franco
Release Date: Sept. 23, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.