Andrew Neel’s Goat is an excellent showcase for up-and-coming star Ben Schnetzer, whose strong performance hints at the better film it could have been.
Since 2014, when he burst onto the film scene in Pride and The Riot Club, I’ve been waiting for Ben Schnetzer to become a movie star. When I interviewed Schnetzer’s Journey is the Destination director, Bronwen Hughes, the superlatives gushed right out: he’s swimming in talent, intelligence, charm, and looks to boot. If nothing else, Andrew Neel’s Goat confirms my suspicion, putting Schnetzer front and centre in a film that relies on his nuanced performance for most of its substance.
In Goat, Schnetzer stars as Brad, a freshman at a fictional university where his older brother Brett (Nick Jonas) is already a member of the fraternity, Phi Sigma Mu. In the months leading up to the beginning of college, Brett would regularly invite Brad to hang out with him at his fraternity with the hopes of persuading him to pledge. But after one of these regular parties, Brad gets brutally beaten and mugged. Traumatized by these events, Brad becomes pretty much perpetually frightened to the point that he starts to see joining the fraternity as a ticket to safety in numbers.
The brutal hazing process, dubbed “hell week”, is almost part of the fraternity’s appeal: it gives Brad an opportunity to prove his masculinity to the world. But this year, according to Brett, the hazing has become much more extreme: the alcohol consumption is getting more intense, the physical feats to complete more difficult, and the rampant homophobia even more potent. The frat brothers take sick pleasure in proving their dominance and the pledges accept their abuse with silent composure. The tacit agreement is that if they survive, this year’s pledges will be next year’s nightmare, able to take out their agression on a new class.
The screenplay, by David Gordon Greene, Mike Roberts, and Neel, pits Brad and Brett on opposite sides of the great barrier: the culture of toxic masculinity that Phi Sigma represents. Brett seems comfortable among the jocks and the bros in a way that Brad never quite is; the glasses Brad wears at the beginning are supposed to signal to us that he’s not quite cool enough for this crowd. Throughout the hazing process, we get glimpses of Brett, in closeup, looking worried about what’s happening to his brother. But he doesn’t say anything, and he barely intervenes. The sheer force of the group keeps him silent.
The most absurd part of the film’s premise is not just that the brothers think they need the fraternity to enjoy college together, but that the film itself suggests this. Every single scene is either set at the fraternity or, in some way, about the fraternity. The only sign of women in the film is at the frat parties where they’re served up as sex objects who almost never speak. When Brad’s roommate Will suggests that the only path to women and sex is through the fraternity, the film offers no evidence to refute it. And yet Schnetzer’s good looks and effortless charisma make it obvious that there’s a world elsewhere for Brad. It’s almost laughable that the film’s pivotal moment essentially involves the brothers realising, as my friend Anders Furze put it, “Oh bro that was an awful thing lets learn from it and become better bros bro”. Surprise: they don’t need the fraternity to be brothers!
Goat often hints at the better film it could have been, especially when it addresses the performance of masculinity. During one initiation sequence, one of the brothers forces Will to slap Brad as a punishment — the ultimate blow for a pair of roommates who feel comfortable crying in front of one another, away from the group. Brad takes a second to think about it and react before slapping Will back, long enough that we can see it as a calculated performance. They trade blows for their brothers, to keep up the façade. It’s perhaps the film’s best and most explicit scene about how performative it all is and how that really doesn’t help anyone. And Schnetzer is crucial to its success, showing us Brad’s hesitation and his insistence on playing the part he believes he’s supposed to play.
But Neel’s take on the performativity of masculinity is inchoate, with little insight into what drives it and why most the boys aren’t able to break the cycle of toxic masculinity. The brief glimpses of uncertainty and hesitation on the boys’ faces before they continue with procedure are what make the hazing ritual interesting to watch, but Neel gets lost in the brutality, forgetting that the boys’ inner struggle is paramount, not to mention the most interesting part.