Goat

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Ben Schnetzer and Nick Jonas in Goat - reeling from a terrifying assault, a 19-year-old boy pledges his brother’s fraternity in an attempt to prove his manhood. What happens there, in the name of 'brotherhood', tests both the boys and their relationship in brutal ways.
"Neel’s movie grips not because of its depiction of hazing, although that is sweaty, disturbing and naturalistic, but because of the psychological tension that builds between the two brothers."

The subjects of frathouse and sorority life are mostly confined to comedy when things go right (The House Bunny, Animal House) or horror movies when things go bad (The Pledge, Sorority Row), which is why director Andrew Neel's slow-burn psychological exploration of the drip-effect of hazing is a refreshing change that delivers genre tensions while asking searching questions about pack mentality and the need to fit in. Based on the memoir by Brad Land and adapted for screen by Neel, Mike Roberts and old hand David Gordon Green, this film is less about the rituals themselves - although many are presented here in all their ugly glory - and more about what makes the pledges and the existing frat members put themselves through the whole business.

From the start we are invited to consider these college kids in detail in a slow motion sequence showing the frat-mosphere in full - each man stripped to the waist, sinews straining, mouth open, unified by the act of noise that we can see but not hear. Having met the tribe, Neel pulls back to show us two individuals, brothers Brett (Nick Jonas, proving he is not just a pretty face) and Brad (rapidly rising star Ben Schnetzer). It's easy to see that Brett is the coolest of the two, already in college and having a ball while Brad is considerably less at ease with the social buzz.

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This difference is exacerbated after Brad gives a stranger a lift with violent consequences, which are an early indication of Neel’s handling of mood. The car journey Brad is on becomes increasingly tense until finally the aggression spills out in full-on nastiness that is not for the squeamish. If Brad felt less masculine than his brother before, the brutal attack leaves him even more vulnerable, with Brett’s fraternity tribe, though outwardly friendly, smelling the unmistakeable scent of weakness. As the physical wounds heal, Brad follows his bro up to college, with Brett keen for him to join his beloved Phi Sigma Mu and Brad – unable to process the emotional aftermath of his beating – subconsciously warming to it as an opportunity to re-establish is manhood.

Hell Week begins and the bullish members of the fraternity start to prey on the ‘goats’, using physical and emotional trials that are a disturbing mix of childish and chilling. Neel explores the insidious way the psychology of this works, so that we are able to see the attraction running with the pack holds for Brad even as we abhor what is happening. The fact that, despite the use of cages, sexual degradation and binge drinking, it is the seemingly innocuous act of fruit throwing that brings matters to a head, shows how easy it is for this machismo melee of hormones to get out of hand.

Neel’s movie grips not because of its depiction of hazing, although that is sweaty, disturbing and naturalistic, but because of the psychological tension that builds between the two brothers as Brett begins to question his allegiances even as Brad is embracing the brotherhood. Both Schnetzer and Jonas bring an intensity to their inner conflict and their characters are believably complex – torn between their existing bond with one another and the desire to form connections to the college tribe. The film also raises questions about how the attitudes instilled in this cauldron of fitting in simmer beneath the lives of these men as they go on into fully-fledged adulthood, although an overblown cameo by James Franco as an alumni desperate to feel the burn, is unnecessary.

The other weakness in Neel’s film is his treatment of women, who are viewed as voyeuristically by his camera as by his male characters and used as easily bedded set dressing, a shame for a film which otherwise takes a long, hard look at ideas of manhood and privilege.

Reviewed on: 22 Apr 2016
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Tension mounts between two brothers as the younger undergoes pledge week at the elder's fraternity house.

Director: Andrew Neel

Writer: David Gordon Green, Brad Land, Andrew Neel, Mike Roberts

Starring: Nick Jonas, Virginia Gardner, Ben Schnetzer, Danny Flaherty, Austin Lyon, Chase Crawford, Trent Rowland, Jake Picking, Patrick Murney, Jon Osbeck, Eric Staves, Gus Halper, Will Pullen, Brock Yurich, William Cross

Year: 2016

Runtime: 96 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

Sundance 2016

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