Not so much as a condemnation of fraternity life as it is a tepid critical view from afar, Andrew Neel’s Goat is all too pleased with itself when it’s showing the harsh brutality of frat life while never fully diving into what makes it such a volatile space. Saved primarily by a first act that stuns and a leading man that captivates, Goat needed to go further into its excoriating of this lifestyle to be more than a blip on the cinematic radar.
After a terrifying, mid-summer assualt that leaves him reeling with trauma, the 19 year-old Brad finds himself at a crossroads in his life before his older brother, Brett, convinces him to attend his college and then sign up for his fraternity. However, things soon turn sour after the initial pledge during hell week where any form of decorum is thrown out the window with the purpose of humiliation and isolation. In a sensitive point in his life Brad finds this tough to deal with as he worries about his status both as a young man entering college and as one having to move past the fear that the trauma induced and concerns over his perceived masculinity after not fighting back.
Nick Jonas proves that his acting talent stretches itself beyond the Scream Queens land and into something a touch more finely tuned and nuanced, especially in his interplay and built in camaraderie with Ben Schnetzer as his brother. The two and their scenes together or where the film tends to get it’s more emotional pull, comfortable in one another presence until they’re starkly not, the film builds and builds on the fissure between them, why it’s there and how it’s lead both to some harsh realizations about frat life and dealing with trauma. Schnetzer is remarkable, many of his emotions being conveyed with rapid fire facial movements that demonstrate just how fragile he is and how poorly his coping mechanisms are working.
Goat toes the line a little too liberally in exploiting frat life to really come across as a true condemnation of the society it builds but it’s efforts in and of itself are compelling. This is best depicted in a very early scene following Brad’s attack where he’s being interrogated by the police about how it happened. Neel frames Schnetzer to look more isolated than he is, dead center in frame with the cream of the walls surrounding him drowning him, pulling him back despite his mounting frustration with law enforcement behaving flippantly regarding his trauma. Purposeful or no, this scene greatly reflects what many victims of sexual assault say they go through when they’re questioned by the police, making the scene poignant in an unexpected manner as the fault of the attack is somehow put on Brad’s, the victims, shoulders. It serves both the purpose of propelling the character into a drive to find someplace like a frat that promises brotherhood and protection opposed to a small town that offered him nothing but also the toxicity of being told what it means to “be a man”. He feels that because he didn’t fight back it’s somehow demeaned him, rather than being able to accept that there nothing foolish or shameful about his reaction.
What makes for such a shame is that the film completely disposes of this thematic layer the second the hell week antics begin and we’re forced to endure yet another “boys will be boys” narrative as beer kegs overflow barely out of teen years boys yell at each other in the woods. Neel should have held tight to that confidence that began the film where we fully entered Brad’s head space and watched first hand as his innocence was taken from him. If the film hadn’t been so distracted by the activities that the pledges were forced to endure and instead focused on Brad and why he felt so desperately like he needed to follow through with them, then maybe Goat could have ended as interestingly as it began.