Here comes Goat to give us the disgusting flip side of Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!! That was a nostalgia-soaked film about the upsides of sunny homosocial bonding and collegiate identity formation. Goat is the grimier underbelly, concerned mostly with a fraternity’s Hell Week hazing, showing in extended, unblinking, and repellent detail the extent to which these ritualized houses of horrors cater to every worst impulse a young man might have. Pledges are humiliated, stripped, attacked, pelted with garbage, caged, beaten, and made to imbibe as much alcohol as possible. And that’s only the first night. They’ll be put through a gauntlet of torture, beaten down emotionally and physically night after night. And for what? To say they belong to a fraternity? To gain access to the sociological benefits that come from such intense relationship forming coupled with a direct historical lineage for this brotherhood? One side character is affronted when his roommate suggests quitting mid-rush. “If the frat goes away, everything goes,” he says.
The lead character is a nice enough young man (Ben Schnetzer) who, in the summer before his freshman year in college, is assaulted. His attackers jump him outside an off-campus party where he was visiting his older brother (Nick Jonas). Bloodied and bruised, he’s clearly still suffering from post-traumatic stress when the fall semester rolls around. This is clearly someone who is psychologically not ready to endure the tortures of rushing a fraternity. But his brother is in the big frat on campus, and he wants to prove to him, and himself, that he’s man enough to become one of the guys. The fragility of his mental state isn’t hammered home, but it certainly amplifies the torture on display. As if seeing the slaps and hearing the shouting, watching the nauseating slurries of food and fluids and seeing the brutal pranks (urinated on while stuck in a large dog cage; blindfolded and marched to a bathroom where a banana is floating in the toilet, made to reach in and grab it; forced to down vast quantities of beer with the threat of a being forced to defile a goat as punishment for failure) weren’t hard enough, we have subtextual knowledge that makes it even harder to take.
What is it that makes the robbery in the film’s opening something worth investigating and punishing – one frat member sneers bileful scorn at “townies” – while the hazing goes on with near total immunity? The fuzzy dichotomy between lawful and unlawful beatings set up by writer-director Andrew Neel and co-writers Mike Roberts and David Gordon Green shows plainly that frats aren’t the root of all evil, but the way they codify and condone systematized toxic masculinity isn’t healthy. It’s societal rot. These aren’t boyish antics excused as japes and capers. These aren’t charming jerks redeemed – even only partially – by their camaraderie. The frat’s leadership is presented as entirely scary, even when feigning care or talking up the good of their unity. They hide behind tradition, proud it’s been this way for a hundred years, and excusing it because what they do is no different, they say, than what other frats do. Emboldened by their perceived immunity, they enact a torturous relationship with their pledges.
It’s enough to make one wonder if frats nationwide are nothing but hundreds of replicas of the Stanford prison experiment, authority inevitably corrupting to and emboldening of every testosterone-drunk freedom of impressionable young men. When they hear another frat has ratted them out for their intense hazing, they flip out. As the movie progresses there are cracks in the frat’s façade, with one member’s slow dismay over the recruits’ extra-nasty treatment leading him to ask, “is it harder this year?” When the dean brings extra scrutiny to bear, investigating charges, they are aggrieved. How dare they face consequences? The performances are committed, wild-eyed, at a fever pitch that approaches frightening intensity. Here are lost young men, radicalized by the pure adrenaline of power, big fish in a small pond allowed to devour anyone they wish.
Neel’s filmmaking is sensitive and restrained, simply recording the specifics in long, uncomfortable, unadorned sequences. Many are harrowing. Some are merely sad, like when an alum (James Franco) storms in for a visit, expressing great disappointment a job, wife, and child are keeping him from partying like the old days. He, too, has bought into the toxicity of the structure, and can’t get it out of his system. It’s poisoned at the root. As the lead character must decide what kind of a man he wants to be, how fully he wants to buy into this cracked situation, the movie gathers a quiet moral force. We see the pain on the pledges’ faces, see it swallowed back with a forced stoicism as they allow abuse to be piled on them even when it stings, even when it hurts, even when it bleeds, even when they should know better, even when their lives could be endangered. The vomit and the blood and the bruises cake the grotesque tableaus. It’s as good a reminder as any that no good frat is good enough to excuse the existence of the worst.