Pasolini’s Salò meets red Solo cups in Goat, Andrew Neel’s deep, dank dive into the depravities of frat pledging that operates as its own kind of hazing ritual. Points are made and lessons imparted with all the subtlety and finesse of a Greek paddle to the head.
Based on Brad Land’s 2004 memoir of the same name (which I haven’t read), Goat opens with its best scene: A dozen or so young white guys, all stripped to the waist, move silently in slo-mo, their actions accompanied by a dark-ambient score. Some clap hands; others are shouting, their neck tendons strained; many look downward, fixated on something or someone offscreen. That we’re never sure what they’re so focused on — are they cheering on the football team or revving up for a bukkake party? — only adds to the terror generated by this scalding image of toxic masculinity.
After this arresting segment, though, Neel, who co-wrote Goat with David Gordon Green and Mike Roberts, rarely allows anything to be left to the viewer’s imagination. 19-year-old Brad (Ben Schnetzer) — who has spent the summer recuperating, physically and psychically, from being assaulted by two strangers he offered to give a ride to — transfers to the college where his cocksure sibling, Brett (Nick Jonas), ranks among the potentates of Phi Sigma Mu. Following incoherently delineated cause and effect, Brad, in an effort to prove his manhood after his beating, decides to pledge his brother’s frat.
What follows is episode after grinding episode of humiliation, homophobic taunting, alcohol poisoning and other forms of physical and mental degradation, as Brad and other underclassmen submit to the Sadean rituals of hell week. Often the bodies of the initiates are arranged in such a way — faces hooded, semi-naked human pyramids formed — to instantly recall Abu Ghraib’s torture tableaux. Although Neel’s insistence on yoking frat-house sadism with this country’s most ignominious international policies carries an initial jolt, the message is diluted by repetition, the mise-en-scène dictated by PFC Lynndie England’s photo album.
While Goat assiduously illustrates the already obvious — that hazing is repugnant — other aspects of the narrative are neglected or underdeveloped. Late in the film, Brett suddenly takes a principled stand, a dizzying about-face not helped by the acting limitations of Jonas, unsteadily transitioning from Disney Channel idol to art-house degenerate. Speaking of which, James Franco, one of Goat’s producers, shows up briefly, playing a Phi Sigma Mu class of 2000 alum who’d rather wake up caked in his own vomit on a frat-house sofa than attend to his grown-man responsibilities. Like most things involving Franco, the cameo is distracting and showboating. But less so than the most wearying of Amerindie standbys, here saved for the final scene: Malick magic-hour light, shining down on Brad, no longer benighted.