Directed by Andrew Neel
Opens September 23
An after-school special for cultural sophisticates, Goat adapts Brad Land’s memoir of his time pledging a frat at Clemson University, which included brutal hazing and eventually the death of another pledge. Co-written by David Gordon Green, produced by indie powerhouse Christine Vachon (plus James Franco and seven other people), and featuring Nick Jonas’s official bid for Serious Actor-dom, the film clearly aspires to blow the whistle on frat culture, though it comes a decade or two too late to qualify as a genuine exposé.
The story opens with Land (played by Ben Schnetzer) giving a ride to a pair of strangers and getting viciously assaulted for his trouble. At first he retreats inward in response, but he’s later persuaded by his brother Brett (Jonas) and a totally sweet party to follow him to fictitious Brookman College and into the ranks of Phi Sig. The humiliations visited upon him by his so-called brothers quickly outstrip his suffering at the hands of his earlier attackers, while his past victimhood is viewed as a form of weakness that threatens to contaminate the group.
Director Andrew Neel’s depiction of toxic masculinity is unflinching and never less than credible, but it lacks any real insight or imaginative sympathy. Moreover, he focuses so closely on the frat that he gives no picture at all of how the Phi Sig house fits into the larger world around it: there are hardly any lines spoken by women, only fleeting cameos from authority figures, and parents are either absent or elided (it’s not clear whether Neel knows which). The movie takes place in a vacuum, its characters unmoored from any kind of backstory or culture that might distinguish them from one another.
The handiest model for a project of this sort is probably Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s meditation on (and restaging of) Columbine. Though hardly perfect, that film ventured real risks in following its troubled characters over the brink, daring to share their consciousness without getting caught up in moral judgments. Neel’s film, by contrast, is a cautionary tale in which pious good intentions suffocate any real creative spark. Like a driver’s-ed filmstrip of bloody car wrecks, its scenes of ritualized cruelty, initially grueling, soon blur together. Ironically, the director’s justification for his parade of horrors is the same as the frat’s petty tyrants for theirs: this is for your own good.