Director: Andrew Neel
Stars: Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas
3 (out of 5) Globes
The Sundance fave “Goat” won’t tell you anything you don’t know about fratboys, nor about their unintentionally amusing yen for hazing. It could practically be an After School Special. Lonely, shy Brad (Ben Schnetzer) feels insufficiently masculine, so he pledges at a house of mega-douches that’s already claimed his brother Brett (Nick Jonas, sans promise ring). He’s mostly sure he can make it through “Hell Week” and its avalanche of abuses: group beatings, gay panic taunts, booze Olympics, hot sauce chugging, nights locked in cages and, yes, a goat, which Brad and company are ordered to shtup then eat.
But this isn’t your grandfather’s alarmist wake-up call, and not only because it drew raves at Sundance and boasts a screenplay credit from David Gordon Green. And indeed, it’s thoughtfully made. Director Andrew Neel wears his lofty influences on his sleeve, kicking things off with a sight that could be easily slipped into Claire Denis’ classic “Beau Travail”: a legion of shirtless bros, flexing and shouting in slo-mo, at once absurd and beautiful. “Goat” is never again that abstract or inspired — just impressively calm and collected, even as the screen is filled with shouting bros about to bust three or four veins
What follows is “Neighbors” played straight. But it’s just as sad. Tune out the loud posturing and penchant for the f-word (not that one), and the frat man-children are even more tragic and pitiable than their green targets. They may act tough, but in quiet moments they look like what they are: little kids playing dress-up, taking seriously a bunch of silly nonsense about codes and undying “brotherhood.”
It can be argued Schnetzer, who killed it as a swaggering gay activist in “Pride,” is too obviously intelligent to play Brad — to embody someone who’d join up with these knuckle-scrapers. It could also be argued that’s the point. This is a film interested in how hyper-masculinity sustains, even thrives, partly through escalation. It’s so deep a part of men’s DNA it can even take over someone like Brad, who would have in any other situation just discovered Belle & Sebastian and Swedish cinema, keeping far, far from a world of keg parties and dudes telling their would-be, blindfolded abusees to eat some crap that’s actually a banana.
“Goat” tends to make its points without saying them in dialogue. That doesn’t make it any less deafening. It’s the filmic equivalent of a Freshman-level course on frat culture, and it rarely manages to surprise. It’s so up for being The Word on frat culture that it fails to engage with how modern masculinity is changing, and how frat types are an increasingly unpopular and suspicious breed. Competent and finely-acted as it is — and that includes the former Jonas brother — it’s talented enough to make you wish it had something more surprising to say. Failing that, you wish it would throw up its hands and turn into whole-hog trash.