Sundance 2016: ‘Goat’ strives for meaning, attains only voyeurism

goat goatGoat
Written by David Gordon Green, Andrew Neel & Mike Roberts
Directed by Andrew Neel
USA, 2016

Goat, the new indie drama from director Andrew Neel, is well made, well acted, well intentioned, and packed with plenty of evocative imagery. Unfortunately, these impressive pieces never coalesce into something more meaningful. It’s like a think piece that isn’t thinking clearly. Goat certainly isn’t a bad film, but it settles for stirring the pot when it could have started a real dialogue.

Brad Land (Ben Schnetzer) is a recent High School graduate with hopes of joining his older brother, Brett (Nick Jonas), at nearby Brookman University in the Fall. Those hopes are nearly dashed when Brad, on his way home from a raging party at his brother’s fraternity house, is savagely beaten by two carjackers. Haunted by his inability to fight back against the attackers, Brad tries to prove his manhood by pledging Brett’s fraternity and enduring the brutal hazing of Hell Week. What follows is an ugly, leering portrait of masculinity that should embarrass men and petrify women.

Director Neel isn’t afraid to wallow in the mud (quite literally) to capture the unforgiving tone and energy of the games men play. This isn’t a simple matter of testing limits; this is masochism propped up by tradition and alcoholism. Boys are locked in cages and forced to eat their own vomit while a gang of muscular frat brothers gather around and urinate on them. Physical beatings are commonplace, as are psychologically crippling displays of public humiliation. It’s unseemly, unsettling, and feels terrifyingly real.

Most of the problems with Goat (the dehumanizing name given to new fraternity pledges) can be traced back to the script. Adapted from the memoirs of Brad Land, screenwriters David Gordon Green, Andrew Neel, and Mike Roberts are strapped with the fundamental problem of a weak hero. Not only does Brad remain emotionally immobile for the entire film, we’re never sure what he’s thinking in the first place. The inability to verbalize his thoughts and feelings makes Brad a blank slate and, ultimately, a less than compelling figure. In fact, Brett gets the only true character arc in the film, and calling it an ‘arc’ is being extremely generous. Mostly, this is a gratuitous depiction of cruelty that simply plays out until it’s time for the movie to end.

The over-arching message of Goat remains nebulous, despite the filmmaker’s obvious intent to provide one. Is this a grand statement about millennial masculinity or the dangers of repressed emotions? Is it an indictment of the structures we impose to keep people out of our private club? Perhaps our willingness to dehumanize others is being examined? There’s really no way to tell because all of these issues broached, if only briefly. This lack of cohesive meaning makes the entire experience feel empty and exploitative.

The performances are reasonably strong from top to bottom. Schnetzer (Pride) is awkward and authentic in a role, unfortunately, that doesn’t give him much to do. Mostly, he just endures the torture, occasionally sweeping the unkempt hair out of his eyes. Gus Halper is convincingly smarmy as the best friend you should never trust, and producer James Franco has an inspired cameo as a legendary frat brother who returns for one last night of debauchery.

There’s just no shaking the feeling that Goat is a missed opportunity. The filmmakers bravely tackle the subject of fragile masculinity, but their approach is muddled and haphazard. Goat does a remarkable job creating a dynamic world of brutality and nihilism. Unfortunately, shocking people out of their stupor with violent imagery is only half of the equation. Real progress comes through deconstruction. Depiction without deconstruction is nothing but glorified voyeurism. Goat may be the jumping off point to a more substantive discussion, but it’s more likely to just leave you in need of a shower.

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