GOAT is not a subtle film, though the performances by its young cast are wonderfully nuanced. Based on the eponymous memoir by Ben Land, it opens with a mob of naked frat boys caught up in slow-motion frenzy of testosterone-driven, gleeful aggression. We do not see what it is that they are kicking, but we have plenty of time to study their faces, bursting with the exuberance that the group experience provides. These are faces distorted with a terrifying intensity of emotion, provoked and fueled by the most primitive part of the id. It is the perfect introduction to the fraternity that considers its members gentlemen, and its ethics of brotherhood above reproach.
Goat is the term applied to its pledges by the most prestigious fraternity on a sleepy rural college campus. The prestige is for the legendary parties it throws, where manhood is defined by one’s capacity for ingesting drugs, drinking alcohol, and scoring with the bevy of willing co-eds who flock to the house. Also flocking to the house is Brad (Ben Schnetzer), a high school senior whose brother, Brett (Nick Jonas) is a member in very good standing. During a particularly debauched party, Brad decides to drive home instead of partaking, which may have been a good decision. The next one, though, is less wise. Two strangers ask for a ride home, which Brett does despite misgivings. It leaves Brad with a severe beating, second-thoughts about college and a strained relationship with Brett, whose first instinct is to track down the guys who did it.
A summer of recovery leads to college, though, and to pledge Brett’s fraternity, where the contrast and comparison between the beating Brett received at the hands of malevolent strangers, and the brutal hazing at the hands of his future frat brothers provides an ironic subtext. Ostensibly to allow the pledges to demonstrate their commitment to the fraternity, the rite of passage has devolved into psychological as well as physical torture that is more about establishing dominance than about brotherhood. That the ritual grows more brutal with each pledge class is neatly summed up by Brett, who grows more and more disillusioned with his frat brothers now that he is seeing his own brother subjected to its exigencies. At one point he asks if this year’s pledge season is worse than the one he endured.
The depiction of the brutality is disturbing and not just for its gruesome attention to details, not just for the individual acts, but moreso for the interaction between pledges and pledge-master (a smoothly evil Gus Halper). The former willing to do whatever they are told without question, no matter how demeaning. The latter indulging in levels of sadism that are nurtured by the process, given a positive reinforcement, or at least no resistance by his frat brothers, that is nothing short of horrifying to witness. Is it actually a turning point, or just wishful thinking on our part when Brad’s roommate and pal, Will (Danny Flaherty) is ordered to punch Brad in the face and does so with full force and only the slightest of hesitations? Only slightly less horrifying in its implications for imprinting a definition of masculinity that can never be undone is the sight of an alum (James Franco), sixteen years after graduation, returning regularly to party hard in the frat house, and to bask In the adoration of the current frat members.
Schnetzer delivers a complex performance that combines introspection and determination with a profound sense of being a little boy lost. The ache he feels at being adrift emotionally is quietly compelling. When he compares pictures of his beating by strangers and the one by his co-pledge on his cell phone, the screen still cracked from his assault, his expression is passive, but there is palpable sense of not quite being able to process it, but also a thunderous epiphany that something is wrong. Jonas is equally good, going through the stages of disillusionment with the attendant and grief that accompanies it, which he is not fully able to process. A nice parallel to his brother’s inability to process what happened to him and how it affects his sense of manhood.
If the story takes familiar turns, it does nothing to lessen its impact. The calamities arrive like way stations in a classic Greek tragedy of hubris and excess. This a film rife with raw emotion and with horror that has nothing to do with the supernatural or the accepted definition of psychopathy.