The Movie Waffler First Look Review - GOAT | The Movie Waffler

First Look Review - GOAT

A college freshman is forced to endure ritualistic abuse in order to join a fraternity.

Review by Ren Zelen (@renzelen)

Directed by: Andrew Neel

Starring: Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas, Danny Flaherty, Gus Halper, James Franco, Jake Picking, Austin Lyon, Virginia Gardner

Goat was viewed at the 2016 Sundance London Film Festival.

As a woman, I found the movie a disturbing but fascinating study of a subject which I can never experience first-hand, but which made me wonder, ‘If I were a man, what kind of man would I be?’

Being a British female, it was initially difficult to connect with this movie, firstly because it centres around savage initiation ceremonies found in the Fraternities of American Colleges, and secondly because it deals with a particularly toxic notion of masculinity.

Andrew Neel’s movie Goat is based on Brad Land’s harrowing memoir and concerns Brad (Ben Schnetzer), an Ohio teen who is abducted, has his car stolen and is left beaten to a pulp by thugs after a frat party.

Having barely enough time to deal with that traumatic experience, he then finds himself undergoing even more demeaning physical and mental abuse during 'Hell Week' - the initiation period necessary to join the Fraternity of the college he has chosen to attend.

Brad tries to repress and internalise the shame (he feels other men are judging him for not fighting back) and post-traumatic stress of the beating, perhaps even hoping that joining the Fraternity and surviving their ‘hazing’ practices will prove his manhood and restore his damaged sense of his own ‘masculinity’. His older brother Brett (Nick Jonas) is already a member and is pleased but secretly anxious to see his sibling making the ‘pledge’.

The dynamic between the two brothers, Brad and Brett, is one of the most interesting features of the movie. They clearly have a close and caring relationship but, confined by the idea of ‘masculinity’ that permeates their society, they still can’t find the courage to talk about their emotions or strike out on a different path.

Initially we see older brother Brett as one of the Frat boys, drinking excessively, trying to bed any woman who is willing, braying and boasting with the rest of the herd. However, after witnessing the hazing proceedings as a spectator rather than a participant, and seeing his brother and the other young candidates suffering painful degradations and humiliations, he begins to feel deeply uncertain about the purpose of these rituals.

The meat-headed fraternity boys insist that it is a question of weeding out the weaklings and finding those worthy of being lifelong ‘brothers’, but Brett begins to question the ultimate point of such ‘tests’ or ‘traditions’, particularly since ‘hazing’ is ostensibly frowned upon by the college authorities and must be practiced in secret.

Their notions of what makes ‘a man’ and not ‘a pussy’ begin to appear to Brett to be constraining and narrow. Finally springing to the defence of his younger brother, who is accused of snitching to the Dean, Brett declares, “None of this matters!” which provokes a fight with his shocked and hostile fraternity cohorts. We can’t help but feel that real courage lies in the man that has the nerve to break away from the pack and forge his own masculine identity.

A perceptive portrayal by lead Ben Schnetzer and a revelatory performance by (erstwhile pop star) Nick Jonas imbues the characters of the two brothers with the suggestion of ambivalence and vulnerability from the outset. Both actors manage to convey a sensitive dimension amid the testosterone-heavy displays of bullying and machismo. James Franco makes a cameo appearance as an ex-fraternity member who can’t quite let go and still needs to revel in his past reputation among the younger crowd.

Most actual fraternity alums would probably count the bonds made within the odd American social construct of ‘Fraternities’ as a useful ‘old boy network’, rather like the Masons. They must nevertheless find it difficult to justify the bullying brutality of ‘hazing’, apart from the fact that having endured it themselves, none had the courage to break the chain. It all speaks of the desperate need of insecure young men to belong to a group, and the fact that they are willing to subsume their own identity (and dignity) in order to feel accepted. We are all aware of this phenomenon; perhaps it is hardwired into all men who have not yet reached maturity?

Director Andrew Neel vows that he is less interested in horrifying adults and parents, than he is in sparking conversations about peer pressure and the conservative, constrictive notion of masculinity found in America. Neel’s movie provides no ultimate answers, leaving room for viewers themselves to respond to, analyse and interpret the events portrayed.

The Sundance London audience for Goat seemed fairly well divided between the genders. As the movie progressed, the women around me gave gasps of disgust, horror or incredulity as we witnessed the distressing, tortuous and bizarre rituals that the young men were willing to endure to enter the ‘brotherhood’ of the Fraternity.

The men in the audience fidgeted uncomfortably but remained doggedly silent. The Brits quietly gave thanks that our Universities are not cursed with Fraternities or Sororities and that our children would not be so brutalized. However, we Brits should not feel too civilised or superior, as where did such barbaric rituals begin, if not in our own oldest and most venerable public schools and university clubs?

Hopefully Goat will cause some to question how constraining the notions of masculinity in our society still are. As a woman, I found the movie a disturbing but fascinating study of a subject which I can never experience first-hand, but which made me wonder, ‘If I were a man, what kind of man would I be?’

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