One of the ways in which the patriarchy will be brought to its knees is through analysing its toxic notions of masculinity. This is a key achievement of Goat, the frat-house drama from director Andrew Neel. And who better to carry this banner than… bubblegum pop pioneer Nick Jonas, of Jonas Brothers fame?! Mind your sniggers – this is a film brimming with threat, boasting several dark, promising performances.
The centre and real star of Goat is Ben Schnetzer as Brad Land, a college newbie who receives a horrific beating that alters his mood and perspective on life. He may look like the Jonas brother from another mother, but Schnetzer has an impressive list of credits to his name. As a Jewish stowaway in The Book Thief, a Bullindgon Club-type buffoon in The Riot Club and best of all a rousing campaigner in Pride, he has demonstrated range; Goat provides his most complex role yet, as Brad first recovers from his assault, then finds happiness in the cult of the frat. The deeper his involvement, though, the more he risks becoming those who assaulted him. As his first encouraging then wary brother Brett, Nick Jonas offers a sensitive, nuanced display of the male sibling relationship. For any doubters, he certainly earns his name on the poster with an understated performance reminding me of Mark Wahlberg. He could do much worse than continue his acting career in a similar vein.
Muscles and bulging physicality are to Goat what guns are to a western. Always loitering in shot, ready to be deployed should the occasion call for it. As many westerns (and Hitchcock) show, the threat of those weapons can be as pernicious as their actual use. If you don’t chug that beer/roll in that mud/put that bag on your head, will your punishment be worse than just exclusion from the group?
The best consideration in the film is of the idea that ‘it’s just a joke’. Parts of the frat culture consider themselves free of prejudice and abuse, and that questionable behaviour is just hi-jinks. Goat shows that, in a hierarchical structure, this is bound to fail; who decides what is funny, what is acceptable? And when the heat increases and the punches fall harder, who will be able to say stop?
Neel spoke at a Sundance London screening about a key scene showing what happens when the culture of silence is broken that was inspired by Dead Poets Society. The rules of the boarding school are replaced by those of the frat, but the enemy is similar; oppressive, silent hierarchies where tradition and conformity have tragic consequences. Another comparison is to Dazed and Confused, a great ‘American youth’ movie with the best hazing/trashing scenes in memory (far less extreme than in Goat). There is no line between fun and fear; there is a very blurry middle ground, where the context and experiences of individuals holds sway. And now, as then, power lies in the hands of loud, often wealthy white men.
There is a brief but important cameo from James Franco as a frat member of years gone by. Franco often inhabits the world of frat-boy comedies – Pineapple Express, This Is The End and the coming animated Sausage Party (which could have been the title here). He is much smarter than some of his best-known roles, & his character Mitch’s return to his old frat, over a decade after leaving, shows that the culture never truly lets go. It suits members both new and old to say: once you’re in, you’re in.
Goat is on an impressive festival run after premiering at Sundance, with showings in Berlin and at Sundance London. Release dates to follow.