There’s really no easy way to start off a review of Goat, the wonderfully intense film directed by Andrew Neel. Particularly after you’ve just come from under its compressive force, as I have. Watching people be terrible to each other is a fun time to a point, so what do you do when those characters continuously say “fuck the line” and just demolish each other? Well if you’re an audience member for Goat, you sit and watch with bated breath to see what will happen next. However, this film is more than just shock and awe, it’s a brilliant examination of masculinity and hours after it I’m left sitting and pondering the themes and the characters, much more so than the violence.
This is not to say that the violence doesn’t have an impact. The threat of violence, of aggression is hanging all over this film from the opening 20 minutes when a nice, but clueless Brad (Ben Schnetzer) gives a ride to two dudes who make him drive out to the middle of nowhere and jump him, without Brad fighting back at all. It’s a brutal inciting incident, but really sets the stage for what’s to come. In many ways, this was the moment where Brad ceased to be who he was and wanted to rediscover that via college, through meeting his roommate to deciding to rush Phi Sigma Mu, the frat his brother is a part of. What follows is pledge process that’s so brutal it frays relationships, brotherly ties, and potentially the lives of our characters.
For a piece of art to rise above its shocks and to have its themes laid bare, it must be ferociously acted with precision. Schnetzer is amazing as the eternally conflicted Brad, and finds really creative ways to show the character’s fraying ends. Playing a guy who’s playing at being tough and hoping to be tougher, while also showing us that if he were to do so, he’d lose a part of himself, is a tough task but he’s up to the challenge. Making that choice difficult is his brother Brett, played by Nick Jonas, whose performance is confounding in a good way, constantly forcing us to try and understand what his real motives are, and coming to a great realization they come from a place of love. These two carry the film on their shoulders, but get some good performances from the ensemble. My favorites would have to be Jake Picking as Dixon, their pledge master, for unbridled intensity and commitment, Danny Flaherty, as the tragic roommate looking for acceptance, and Gus Halper, as Chance, a pot stirrer and bad influence if there ever was one.
With all of these actors and the intense hazing it takes a sure handed director to make it work. What I love that Andrew Neel did with Goat, more than trap us in an intense spiral of a film, was manage to make each character feel fully realized and whole no matter how nice or not. There’s a moment in West Side Story where one of the Jets says they didn’t make the world, they just live in it. It’s a quietly staggering line from an already heavy musical and it seems apropos to mention along with Goat, as the movie doesn’t judge the characters, merely presents them. We as audience members are free to judge them, and I did and still do. You understand that these guys are the byproducts of who came before them, their upbringing as much to blame as current day actions. I went to Georgia Tech and although I cannot speak to the fraternity culture there, Neel presents people that you can easily recognize. We all know the jock, douchey, awful human being type frat brothers, and this movie presents them to us as such. But it also forces us to really understand why young men might want to be them, how they view themselves, and how society itself can really shape, in both good and bad, how we will live our lives.