A Review of Andrew Neel’s Goat: Masculinity Wreaks Havoc in this Uneven Drama

Goat (2)
Film: Goat
Director: Andrew Neel
Writers: David Gordon Green, Brad Land (memoir), Andrew Neel, Mike Roberts
Primary Cast: Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas, Gus Halper, Danny Flaherty, Jake Picking, James Franco
US Release Date: 23 September 2016

During his last summer before college, Brad Land (Schnetzer) is the victim of a brutal assault that leaves him physically, mentally, and emotionally battered. The traumatizing event shakes Brad to his core. It emasculates him, and it fills him with fear.

Before he can process that fear however, he is swept off to college, where he is expected to rush the same fraternity that his older brother, Brett (Jonas) is already a member of. During his interactions with various frat brothers, Brad often appears uncomfortable, and it is clear that his status as a victim has changed the way that they think of him. Still, he goes to every party, and—driven by twin desires to prove his manhood and to please his older brother, he pledges himself to the fraternity.

And then the hazing begins.

Directed by Andrew Neel (Darkon, King Kelly), and written in part by David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express), Goat uses the dark realties of fraternity hazing to tell a tale of toxic masculinity and brotherhood. Adapted from Brad Land’s 2004 memoir, Goat is part horror film, part character study, and part college coming-of-age drama. Often brutal and occasionally inspired, Neel’s film is supported by solid lead performances and by the markedly disturbing nature of its subject matter. Unfortunately, Goat also exhibits a frustrating lack of focus and is repeatedly derailed by inconsistency.

From its opening shot, Goat makes it clear that it is a film about masculinity and its dangers. And toxic masculinity—and some of the ways in which it can damage souls, destroy relationships, and even end lives—remains at its forefront for most of its running time. However, the film’s stance on that masculinity is not always as clear as Neel would probably like to think it is. While there are scenes in the film that clearly mean to indict the hazing and other overtly (and overly) masculine behaviors exhibited in the film, there are numerous others in which its purpose becomes somewhat muddled. While the film obviously wants to paint an unsettling portrait of masculinity and the effects it can have on men, it doesn’t fully commit to pushing that message as far as it should have. Similarly, while the film often seems to want to tell men that it’s ok for them to cry, to admit weakness, and to process their emotions, its underdeveloped approach would also indicate that such only applies if they’ve (literally) had the piss beaten out of them.

Additionally, the film’s quiet (and rather weak ending) pulls viewers away from the drama’s primary thematic concerns while obscuring the film’s attitude toward its own protagonist. In Goat’s final moments, it’s unclear whether Brad has triumphed over any of his demons or whether he’s suffered yet another defeat. If Brad’s learned anything valuable about processing his horrifying experiences, about eschewing the entrapments of masculinity, or about choosing better friends, such lessons are lost in an unsatisfying set of final scenes that are more concerned with bringing the narrative full circle than they are with clarifying the film’s mission or with sharpening the outlines of its characters. The unimpressive ending also reduces Goat’s ability to leave a lasting mark on audiences.

This is especially frustrating, because Goat works best when its doing its worst. Neel clearly knows how to affect and disturb, but his film also gets distracted too frequently to be truly successful. The frame narrative pertaining to Brad’s assault is not deployed all that effectively, and subplots concerning Brad’s crush on a girl or his relationship with his roommate are underdeveloped and accomplish little. And yet, when it allows itself to immerse viewers in horror, Goat remains believable and, in retaining a strong aura of realism, it significantly heightens its impact. The most difficult moments to watch in Goat are also its most impressive, largely because they carry the greatest potential for conceptual complexity. But whenever Neel allows his characters to come up for air, he often loses his way, and it is frequently in such moments that Goat becomes quite ordinary.

Regardless of any flaws, Goat does feature solid, emotionally engaging work from Schnetzer. Jonas is also better than some might expect, and James Franco’s cameo—while undoubtedly strange—is oddly entertaining. Still, the real stand-out among the cast is Gus Halper, who plays one of the top dogs at the frat. The wolfish Halper has a remarkable ability to come off as sincere and incredibly threatening all at once, at it will be interesting to see what becomes of his career.

Though it’s hardly surprising given its subject matter, Goat is all white men. There are a few women in the film, but the only one who is allowed to exist as more than a pair of tits is abandoned entirely quite early in the narrative. If the film did anything to condemn—or even to intelligently acknowledge—this fact, it’d be easier to swallow. As it stands, Neel doesn’t want viewers to notice or think about any women at all. Making a movie about masculinity is one thing. Portraying women as nothing but fuckable ghosts in another.

In making Goat, Neel was inspired by Lord of the Flies, and when that inspiration is the most evident, the film is its most effective. There are some truly gripping moments in Goat as well as more than a few important ideas. But the film falls short. It never quite lives up to the potential of its slow-motion opening sequence. It wanders and often lacks clear purpose. If Neel had fully committed to making a horror film, he may have had something truly noteworthy and original on his hands; for a darker, a more daring, and a more focused approach to the themes worth mining in Brad Land’s story would have yielded a more powerful and satisfying piece of cinema.

Until Next Time
For what’s it worth Goat isn’t even the best film of 2016 with a poster depicting a goat. That honor goes to The Witch. Personally, I’d like to see a version of the film directed by David Gordon Green.

Since, Goat. I’ve also watched King of Comedy, Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes, Battleship Potemkin, and Other People. Such is the life of a film studies graduate student. With the exception of Battleship Potemkin, the other films were all new to me, so I may mention some of them in future posts. That said, while I am watching more movies than ever lately, time and studenting will prevent me from writing about a number of them. Luckily, you can easily keep up with my movie-watching activities on twitter and letterboxd.

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