In slow motion, with a warble of electronic white noise replacing the sound of their screams, the members of the Phi Sigma Mu fraternity assume an animal quality, their bared teeth like those of predators encircling their prey. Neck muscles strain, veins bulge from nude torsos and flexed arms, and eyes flicker with untamed fury. The opening sequence of Andrew Neel’s Goat measures the brute force of fraternity culture, watching the brotherhood turn wolves into sheep. As a freshman might tally the weights on a bench press, the film counts its abuses with care, adding insults to injuries until the crash comes. But as for the fragile souls that adhere to this faith, this belief that belonging requires submission, the film’s additive approach proves unpersuasive. To depict the excesses of Phi Sig’s strange rituals with such high fidelity isn’t necessarily to dramatize the crush of social pressures these cruelties represent. Call it the tedium of toxic masculinity.
Adapted by Neel, David Gordon Green, and Mike Roberts from Brad Land’s 2004 memoir, Goat begins with a gruesome attack, as 19-year-old Brad (Ben Schnetzer) is set upon by two hooded miscreants after they ask him for a ride home from a party. When Brad starts college at the end of the summer, deciding to follow his older brother, Brett (Nick Jonas), and pledge Phi Sig, the parallel between this senseless violence and the hazing of Hell Week soon becomes clear. The main assailant’s most malicious act is a series of slaps to Brad’s battered face as his blood, spit, and snot drip onto the country road, a motif that recurs again and again amid the fraternity’s tortures—as Mitch (James Franco), a Phi Sig legend, challenges Brad to a fight, or as a sadistic pledge master (Jake Picking) forces Brad to hit his friend and roommate, Will (Danny Flaherty), in the course of an overnight outing. At one point, our protagonist even aims the blows at himself, sitting in a parked car outside the police station where his account of the beating has been called into question: In Goat, the performance of strength is, in part, the concealment of self-loathing, the humiliation of others at once the shield and the spear.
If the film captures the rancor that runs through this subculture, the shiv-like precision of homophobic slurs and the degradation of being covered in liquor and vomit and mud, its understanding of the brittleness that begets these “traditions” appears altogether shallower. As Brad and Brett grow increasingly uncomfortable with Phi Sig’s practices, Goat finds moments of real warmth between the brothers, moments that reshape their views of the fraternity’s rites, but of the wounded desire for acceptance, or power, that might motivate membership in this repellent order, the film offers few fresh insights. Arguably, the long stretches of debasement the pledges (“goats”) endure replicate the relentlessness of the experience; in truth, these sequences are as monotonous as the goats’ braying, demanded as they crawl along the frat house’s basement floor. In particular, the paper-thin characterization of Phi Sig’s leaders lends little depth, emotional or otherwise, to the savagery: “Pledges gotta go through hell,” the pledge master says, defending the pain he’s inflicted. “Or what’s the fuckin’ point?”
Here, as in the barrage Brad suffers in the film’s first stages, Goat hews to the idea that there is none, and fails to acknowledge, in the process, that indiscriminate rage is more symptom than cause. Neel’s intense focus on the details of Sig Phi’s customs, in which bananas and sausages and cries of “faggot” invoke the straight man’s primal fear, ultimately overwhelms the film’s few intimations of the underlying illness. “You have no friends. Nobody’s looking out for you. Nobody loves you,” Brett bellows in his brother’s face, one of Hell Week’s many mortifications, and it’s this sense of the damage “manhood” inflicts on men that defines Goat’s handful of arresting interludes—the point at which the animal act meets the human need, throwing up brighter sparks than the successful pledges’ celebratory bonfire. By the time the film’s awful climax arrives, though, it seems too spent from upbraiding pledges and finishing kegs to muster much in the way of sorrow. The risk of holding one’s emotions at bay for so long, of course, is that they become difficult, if not impossible, to access.