So, fraternities are bad, right? The hazing they do is kinda gross and maybe dangerous, yeah? This is essentially the gist of Goat, which offers an unflinching criticism of frat culture but fails to find anything interesting to say along the way.
The first fifteen minutes or so promise a better film than eventuates. Opening credits roll over slow-motion grotesquery, shirtless young men screaming and hollering over a soundtrack of only disconcertingly hollow electronica. The film proper starts in a frat party, but only briefly, as nervous teenager Brad (Ben Schnetzer) abandons his brother Brett (Nick Jonas) and a pair of young ladies to head home. His journey home is interrupted by a pair of locals who beg a ride before unleashing a brutal assault and Brad and making off with his car.
It’s a disorientating introduction, but as the film fast-forwards through Brad’s slow recovery, the idea of interrogating the intersection between fraternity hyper-masculinity and post-traumatic stress – or, at least, wounded pride – melts away into the masculine mundane. We spend the excruciating middle stretch of the film surveying Brad’s torturous path to frat membership, alongside a host of eager young men (including Brad’s nervous new roommate, Will (Danny Flaherty)). Prepare yourself for a relentless series of humiliation and binge-drinking and rotten fruit and faeces and, at one point, an actual goat.
All this makes for deeply unwelcoming viewing which is, of course, intentional. This drawn out second act – intermittently interrupted by drunken hook-ups and James Franco cameos – is intended to be a disgusting realisation of the particulars of frat hazing, as chronicled in Brad Land’s memoir of the same name. But despite the evocative opening scene, there’s no substantial analysis of the underlying social politics that drive frat culture; it’s just a gruelling series of bad shit happening before the inevitable dramatic climax.
In all likelihood, director Andrew Neel and his screenwriters are holding true to the events of Land’s book. But why not dig a little deeper? Offer a full-throated consideration of why Brad’s assault might lead him to require the sanctity of a fraternity even as it increasingly reveals itself as a den of sociopaths? Or instead consider the homoeroticism resonating (barely) under the surface of these hazing rituals, with their insistence on nudity and simulated sex and the like. Or examine the role of institutions in implicitly excusing this behaviour, of looking the other way because it’s easier. (The near-total absence of authority figures – parents, university administration, etc – from the storyline is maybe intended to feint at this but, if so, it doesn’t work.) Or maybe find room for a female character who does something other than take their top off?
The shallowness of the screenplay isn’t assisted by the straight-to-VOD sheen of the project proper. The cinematography is occasionally competent – Brad’s beating is legitimately difficult to watch for instance – but rarely inspired. It’s easy to sneer at the thesping of the likes of Jonas and Franco, but the acting here is not so much awful as utterly mediocre, unable to elevate dialogue crying out for deeper characterisation. Everything is surface level, everything is obvious.