Goat. 2016. Directed by Andrew Neel. Screenplay by Neel, David Gordon Green, & Mike Roberts; based on the book by Brad Land.
Starring Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas, Gus Halper, Danny Flaherty, Virginia Gardner, Jake Picking, Brock Yurich, Will Pullen, Austin Lyon, Eric Staves, & James Franco.
Killer Films/Fresh Jade/RabbitBandini Productions.
Rated R. 96 minutes.
As a guy who knows what it’s like to embrace both your masculine and feminine side, I always love films that tackle toxic masculinity. It isn’t all masculinity which is toxic; that’s what so many Men’s Rights Activists (a foolish movement to say the least) don’t seem to understand. It’s fine to be masculine. But when the masculine ideals to which our society aims are fraught with violence, the denial of emotions, among other supremely negative elements, then there’s something wrong. And that’s why we have rape culture, that’s why men who are in touch with their feminine, softer side are often ridiculed or ostracised.
That’s why Andrew Neel made Goat.
Brad Land’s memoir deals with a violent assault he suffered. Afterwards, led along by the flawed construction of masculinity all too often forced onto young men, he pledged into a fraternity alongside his golden boy brother, where the idea of being a man is how much abuse, cruelty, and humiliation one can take. Adapted onto film, Goat is a gritty, thorough view into the harsher side of fraternities. Again, not all fraternities are like this either, just as not all masculinity is poisonous. However, these types of groups exist, and we’ve seen a fair share of that just through news reports on television, the horror stories that now bubble up to the surface more due to social media. Focusing on the world of these pumped up masculine young men – the hazings, the false loyalty and bullshit brotherhood which are part of the fraternity foundation – Neel takes us inside a microcosm of toxic masculine ideals, both offering a sobering look at college life that parents refuse to accept, as well as allowing Brad Land’s (Ben Schnetzer) story to represent what so many young men go through, mostly in a fog of silence.
The film opens on a hypnotic, slow motion shot capturing a cyclone of white alpha males, each yelling in a crowd like the many same faces of one single hive mind. Right from the start, Neel puts us in the center. As viewer we are in the midst of the cyclone, we are in the POV of guys like Brad Land, any kid who’s ever found themselves in the middle of a circle of dudes being cheered on to fight (or chug or whatever). Putting us in this perspective is to say: this is the experience of adhering to masculinity.
Moving on, Neel sets up a suspenseful sequence. When Brad leaves the party things seem fine. Then gradually from one small event to the next you can see something bad looming a mile away. Your gut wrenches watching this young, sweet guy head towards danger. Soon as he’s being beaten bloody on a back road someplace, the viewer either has to cringe or look away. The tension, the carelessness of the two guys robbing Brad, it all amounts to a heartbreaking few moments. Especially because Brad’s setup from the first time we see him as a respectful guy, one who isn’t out at parties just to watch two coked up, drunk girls make-out. So part of what disturbs here is a loss of innocence. Or that these unassuming robbers are tarnishing that innocence.
It’s after this act that the false ideals of masculinity our society plays up take hold, convincing him that joining a fraternity is his best option. Of course the degradation forced upon him by the frat brothers is a way for him to test himself. He feels a loss of manhood, too. Having not defended himself appropriately, Brad sees himself as less manly. His brother Brett (Nick Jonas in a great performance) makes him feel as if he didn’t do enough, that he didn’t ‘act like a man’ or whatever. All this fuels his determination to prove to himself, and the other men around him (Brett specifically), that he is indeed a man; to the measure of society, not to his own.
“Do you think I‘m a pussy?”
This question is the perception of how other men feel about you as a fellow man; the question constantly running through poor Brad’s mind. He wonders if this is how other men feel in his presence. And to an extent, they do, no matter if they make it outwardly noticeable or not. Faux-masculinity decrees a man must act a certain way: not supposed to care about girls (even some of them enforce this), you have to keep up with the drinking – “man shit” and not some ‘pussy’ beverage – you have to shake hands like men and kiss ass to the men higher on the food chain. When Brad or any of the pledges fall out of this basic code of masculine behaviour, they’re either made fun of or hazed harder or downright abused. What happens with Brad is that falling into this world drenched in fabricated masculinity is part of the whole system. That is to say, Brad adheres to the code by not outright dealing with his assault. He refuses to face the police after they want him to come in and try helping to find the men who beat and robbed him. He tries to act ‘like a man’ to cover up his perceived lack of manhood during that same event. Not dealing with your emotions, not succumbing to tears or admitting he was assaulted, Brad defers any healing. He gets swallowed up in the brotherhood, at least until coming to his senses later. But Brad’s story is case and point: false masculinity, one that denies emotion and admitting to weakness, can take you to a bad place.
Perhaps one of the most poignant, brief moments where Neel shows us the bitter side of this masculine world is when James Franco’s character Mitch arrives. He reveals a never ending sadness to the lingering faux-masculinity of the frat house. Mitch isn’t a big businessman still with the solid connections and a network of contacts from pledging to a frat years ago. He is a man, married with kids, whose idea of the glory days have passed him by, and he cannot let go. To the frat dudes, he is a king amongst men. To the viewer he is a sad, misguided relic of a broken and inhumane system that rages on college campuses all over the United States.
In the jungle becoming a man is often a dangerous test of courage and will. In America, becoming a man for many is equated with the fraternity pledge, which involves being degraded, suffering constant humiliation, each meant as substitutes for the process of bonding and ultimately brotherhood. Neel deconstructs the fraternity concept of masculine behaviour by showing off its ugliness. The word faggot is used liberally, so it’s easy enough to comprehend the fraternity system is inherently homophobic; the types of guys who pledge, at least 75%, are homophobes. Ironically, they’re also some of the most homoerotic people in existence. This is further evident in the hazings. A few events are just humiliating in the sense that the pledges do push-ups while being rained upon with various food, drink, so on. But then things take nastier turns. First, it’s one pledge who throws up from the liquor being pissed on in a cage. Later the brothers have pledges blindfolded, sucking on fake dicks. A little while after they’re in underwear and mud wrestling. Their hazing goes from juvenile to homophobic to homoerotic. While constantly shouting the words faggot and pussy at the pledges, the brothers inexplicably have them engage in weird fake homosexual activity all in the name of brotherhood. A weird world.
Goat is a film with a hard hitting message that doesn’t preach. The story of Brad Land serves as the backdrop for a larger discussion on toxic masculinity. Again, not all masculinity need be considered toxic. When frat behaviour runs wild in this story, the effects of the bad sort of masculinity embedded in society are painfully clear. You don’t have to cut through a layer of metaphor to access what Neel’s film is selling. Filling in as the movie version of Brad Land, Schnetzer is a tour-de-force, and I hope he’ll do plenty more in the future; he brings out the pain of the experience with phenomenal range. Jonas has become someone I feel is worth watching, going from his hilarious and dark turn in Scream Queens to playing Brett Land, whose relationship with his brother gives us a window into how false conceptions of masculinity can even nearly tear two brothers into pieces. This is a well acted, well executed film on all ends. The story is really tense, hard to watch in certain scenes. But every bit is worth it. Watch. Learn. We need to start viewing the male experience in all its forms, not just big movie starts being ‘the man’ – we ought to see how being the man isn’t always what every man needs. Sometimes we just want to be a person, to not aspire to an archetype of manhood. And plenty of times that’s better for us.