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goat-2016-movie-poster

D: Andrew Neel / 102m

Cast: Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas, Gus Halper, Danny Flaherty, Virginia Gardner, Jake Picking, Brock Yurich, Will Pullen, Austin Lyon, Eric Staves, James Franco

Across America there are hundreds if not thousands of colleges. And these colleges have what are called fraternities, male-only “clubs” whose membership is often highly sought after, and which confers a certain level of social acceptance on the member. If you’re a student who doesn’t belong to a fraternity, the inference is that you’re somehow not worthy, or an outsider and to be avoided. But if you are a student and you do want to fit in, then the price of membership is called Hell Week. During this period, the students who head up the fraternities will play practical jokes on potential members (called pledges), get them to perform painful or humiliating tasks, keep the pledges at the fraternity’s beck and call, and generally make their lives – appropriately – hell. The idea, officially, is to weed out the weak from the strong, and only allow in those who meet whatever criteria the fraternity is looking for. Unofficially, it’s an opportunity for existing members to bully and humiliate pledges, and all in the name of accepted tradition.

It’s this period of time in a college student’s life that is explored in Goat, an adaptation of the autobiographical book by Brad Land. Land (Schnetzer) is on the brink of going to the same college where his older brother Brett (Jonas) is studying, but he’s having second thoughts. However, an ill-fated decision to give two strangers a ride home late one night leads to Brad being robbed and assaulted, and his attackers disappearing. Stricken by guilt and self-reproach over not fighting back, Brad makes the decision to attend college, and though it means leaving behind his friends, and the one girl he likes (and who seems to like him), for Brad it’s akin to making a fresh start. Brett is happy that they’ll be on campus together, and so is Brad, who is soon getting to know his roommate, Will (Flaherty). It isn’t long before Brett’s fraternity comes calling, and he’s asked to join, along with Will.

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Hell Week begins and the various tasks Brad and the other pledges are required to endure at first are largely alcohol-related. But as the week continues, and the tasks become more aggressive and humiliating in nature, Brett begins to believe that Brad shouldn’t be a pledge at all. But Brad is insistent that he’ll see it through, whatever happens to him. And see it through he does, but he and the others, including Will, have another month of hazing to endure before they become full-fledged fraternity members. During this period, a wedge is driven between the two brothers, the police contact Brad with news that they may have apprehended one of his attackers, and a tragedy threatens the existence of the fraternity and Brad’s continued attendance at the college…

True stories about horrific experiences, or periods in a person’s life, can often be a trial to sit through as well, and Goat, despite the best of intentions, is one such movie. Despite everything that happens to Brad in the course of Goat, one thing remains truer than any of the events of Hell Week, or even the carjacking-cum-assault and battery he suffers at the beginning, and it’s the one thing that lets the movie down throughout: we never get to know him. We learn some basics about him, but there’s too much that remains a mystery. We never get to know why he’s reluctant to go to college in the first place. We never learn why he decides not to stay in contact with the girl he likes. We never learn what his aspirations are, or why he’s at college to begin with (at one point he states he doesn’t know what he’ll major in). And most bewildering of all, we never learn why he wants to be a member of Phi Sigma Mu (other than that his brother is already). With the movie keeping Brad’s motivations in the dark, and by making him a less than self-reflexive character, Goat struggles to make his experiences ones that the viewer can sympathise with, or indeed, relate to. For anyone who has never taken part in a Hell Week, or the subsequent hazing period, why anyone would want to go through such a demeaning experience just to join a fraternity is completely baffling.

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With the viewer asked to just accept this notion wholesale, the movie focuses on an unwelcome series of ritualised pranking and so-called character-building “exercises” that take up too much of the running time, and which proves futile in creating any tension, or dramatic traction. Scenes that should appal and horrify for their content are instead frustratingly matter-of-fact, and whatever happens to the pledges goes unchallenged in terms of bullying or deliberate mistreatment. It’s only when there’s a tragedy that the screenplay – by David Gordon Green, director Neel, and Mike Roberts – begins to question the morality of Hell Week, and even then it’s to set up a clumsy confrontation between Brett and fraternity bigwig Chance (Halper).

As the beleaguered Brad, Schnetzer is earnest or glum, depending on the scene, and has trouble portraying the range of emotions his character goes through, mainly because the script lacks consistency in determining them. Jonas is kept on the sidelines for the most part, and seems there only to deliver the occasional brotherly pep-talk, Halper oozes insincerity as the leader of Phi Sigma Mu, Picking is the principal bully-boy with few other recognisable characteristics, and Flaherty is the obvious “runt” who’ll suffer more than the others. There’s also a cameo from Franco as the owner of the fraternity house, an ex-fraternity member who still craves his old life even though he’s married and has a child. Sadly, his appearance makes no impact on the overall story, and his character is forgotten about after five minutes.

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Whatever the truth of Land’s experiences in college, and even if the content of his Hell Week is accurate, thanks to an injudicious script and muddled direction by Neel, Goat remains a lost opportunity to examine the psychology of both the pledges and the fraternity members who torment them so willingly. Though you could argue that Brad takes part as a way of punishing himself for not fighting back against his attackers, it’s a theory that the movie fails to confirm or deny, and in holding back, it makes Brad’s journey even less appealing. In the end, the movie ends back where Brad was attacked, but even there it prompts more questions, and leaves the viewer still wondering what it was all for.

Rating: 5/10 – as a straightforward piece of movie making, Goat is a blunt, what-you-see-is-what-you-get feature that never gets inside the head of its main protagonist, and lacks the interest to do so; flatly directed by Neel with performances to match, the movie feels as if it’s about to “reveal all” on several occasions, but instead it remains vague and under-developed, and does its best not to let the audience in on why everything is happening.

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