Lord of The Flies meets Stanford Prison Experiment may be an apt characterization of Goat, an exposé on fraternity hazing. Based on Brad Land’s memoir of the same name, Goat gets elbow-deep into the heady, terrifying mix of masculinity and violence. The movie asks why the two are in such close fraternity, especially in the context of the Greek system.
The film is unsettling and visceral, perhaps all the more because it is based on actual events. Brett (Nick Jonas) and Brad (Ben Schnetzer) are two brothers from Ohio. Brett, the slightly older of the two, is already a member of Phi Sigma Mu. After one of Mu’s parties, Brad is carjacked, robbed, and brutally beaten by two “townies” (as the film calls them). The attack becomes the unstated epicenter around which the rest of the film revolves. When the police ask Brad why he didn’t fight back if the attackers had no guns, Brad finds himself wondering if he was a “pussy” by not fighting back. The audience gets a poignant glimpse into the dangerous assumptions about the use of violence to establish masculinity.
Masculinity, or should we say hyper masculinity, erupts and seethes in every moment of the film. Shirts are in great dearth; so is talking at normal volume or abstaining from drinking, rather drinking to the point of poisoning oneself. More noteworthy, however, are the humiliations that are part of Hell Week, which involve the threat of having to copulate with a goat (hence, the name), being urinated on, touching feces, threats of forced fellatio, mud wrestling etc. Ironically enough, this is terribly homoerotic fodder, yet calling the pledges “faggots” is still meant to underline that this is something they are most definitely not. There is little reprieve from the onslaught of masculinity on the screen—the only female characters are women who (willingly, at least in the film) participate in one-night stands with the fraternity members. They are peripheral in every sense.
There is an ever present and palpable threatening thrum throughout everything the fraternity does—when they party, the excess is so overwhelming that the only thing that comes to mind is what one does when one laughs to keep from crying. It’s the kind of partying you do when you try to convince everyone just how great of a time you are having, truth be damned. Dubstep booms; people are sprayed with alcohol—it is so much fun! In a rather memorable cameo, James Franco is the frat alum who can’t seem to leave behind the good ol’ college days. He is like the much angrier version of Matthew McConaughey from Dazed and Confused.
Brohood abounds; brotherhood—not so much. One is hard-pressed to see the lauded brotherhood in Phi Sigma Mu’s members; instead the atmosphere is one of dominance and submission. Goat, however, asks some rather probing questions. Why would a nerdy, nice guy type like Will Fitch, Brad’s roommate, endure being pelted with rotten fruit to the point of getting a concussion to be a part of a group of meatheads? Much like a gang, leaving a fraternity is not like dropping a class. The fraternity confers a certain social cache that is really important in a small school, like the one in the movie. Fitch points out, quite correctly, that “they” are everywhere. And the bullying that comes along with “them” is omnipresent as well.
Peer pressure, as portrayed in Goat, is intensely animalistic and overwhelming. This pressure is a far cry from “Bro, have another beer.” The intensity is almost military-like, which is quite eloquently portrayed in a scene where one of the pledge masters takes a picture referencing the infamous one from Abu Ghraib prison of himself stepping on the naked backs of all the pledges.
Director Andrew Neel superbly allows us behind the curtain of something we have heard and read about but have likely never seen. To watch the rituals is harrowing. Yet, there is a multi-dimensionality to the characters, especially of the two brothers. Brad and Brett’s love for each other belies cartoonish characterizations. For all the talk of brotherhood, the realest example of it is not to be found in an “Animal House.” The film also steers clear of judging the Greek system, instead focusing on just one aspect of it—initiation.
Goat succeeds in portraying something plucked straight from the headlines authentically, so it doesn’t stay all Greek to us.