During Hell Week at Brookman University, the nondescript college at the center of Goat, a group of fraternity pledges are rounded up, stripped down to their underwear, and put through a series of hazing rituals, all fueled by forced binge drinking. The pledges are punchy and exhausted, weary from the physical and verbal abuse they’ve been absorbing by their barbaric tormenters. One of the frat bros asks them to gather together for a picture, arranging them on all fours in a pyramid structure, deliberately re-staging the famously unsettling photos from Abu Ghraib, the Baghdad prison where American soldiers were caught committing human rights violations against detainees. “Guantanamo, b*tch!,” one of them shouts.
For a campus Greek to confuse Abu Ghraib with Guantanamo is a small detail, because he’s surely not alone among his peers in not paying the closest attention to world affairs. But it’s a significant moment in a movie about men who are not only keen to challenge the boundaries of acceptable behavior, but intoxicated by the power they’ve been given over other people. They tell themselves that hazing is a rite-of-passage, something all their “brothers” have gone through for as long as fraternities have existed on campus, and since they were once lowly pledges, it’s now their privilege to take it out on the new recruits. But there’s nothing about Hell Week to suggest a bonding ritual between dudes who will become lifelong friends on the other side; in reality, they’re role-playing torturers.
Adapted from Brad Land’s memoir by David Gordon Green, Dave Roberts, and Andrew Neel, and directed by Neel, Goat addresses this ritualized brutality head-on, from the perspective of an already traumatized victim. It opens with Brad (Ben Schnitzer), a recent high school graduate, agreeing to drive a couple of strangers home after a house party. The men lead him out to a field, take turns beating him to a pulp, and peel away with his car and his wallet. The incident affects him deeply, but his older brother Brett (Nick Jonas, of the Jonas Brothers) encourages him to follow through on his plans to attend Brookman in the fall and pledge his highly coveted fraternity. The message to Brad is clear: Suck it up and be a man.
Once on campus, Brett’s frat brothers welcome Brad and his socially awkward roommate Will (Danny Flaherty), but they’re not sympathetic to his story. Why didn’t Brad fight back? Having a sibling in the fraternity is no guarantee that Brad will get voted in, and the brothers have pegged him as weak. This sets up a series of Hell Week sequences that force Brad and the other recruits into increasingly compromising positions, from the relatively minor trial of guzzling tabasco sauce to various violations of the Geneva Conventions, like sleep deprivation, loud music, stress positions, and sexual humiliation. At the end of it, the pledges are expected to hug it out, but there’s still no guarantee they’ll even make the cut, much less befriend their abusers.
There’s nothing terribly complicated about the psychology in Goat, because so much of it has to do with brute masculinity and the pack mentality of young men who bow to collective madness. But Neel stages the frathouse parties and hazing rituals with a persuasive air of hostility and aggression, reframing the Animal House “fun” of being Greek to look more like booze-soaked lion’s den where anything can happen. If there’s anything uniting Brad and his pitiless pledge-masters, it’s the weakness behind their macho behavior: Brad hasn’t gotten over the beating he took during summer break and the frat guys don’t have the moral courage to draw the line. It’s a toxic combination.
Though the individual characters are thinly drawn, Schnitzer and Jonas are both convincing as brothers who have allegiances to each other and to the fraternity — and blood doesn’t necessarily trump bro. Brad is the victim, but Brett is the more complicated character of the two, because he’s trying so desperately to force his brother and his brothers into an arranged marriage, all while tamping down his own troubled conscience. Goat is a suitably horrific exposé of campus hazing, but it’s wise about the difficulties of ending it, even when victims and perpetrators both want it to stop.