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.