Director Andrew Neel
Men. Who would have thought that to millennial culture, a gender would be such a heavy talking point? Whether it’s gender equality in film or dissecting the very nature of masculinity, heteronormativity and gender stereotyping are terms that are thrown around so casually these days that my cousin’s newborn can define them. With the 2016 fraternity hazing drama GOAT, director Andrew Neel seeks to analyze what constitutes masculinity and uses his camera to capture the horrors that can turn a pledging process into an identity crisis. To say that there’s potential in this logline is a wild understatement.
Starring Ben Schnetzer, GOAT follows a college freshman who finds himself rushing his brother’s (Nick Jonas) fraternity after a violent mugging left him beaten and emasculated. In an attempt to capture this character’s internal struggle, Neel treats the fraternity’s rush week as a traumatizing menagerie of dehumanizing trials, fascinatingly reminiscent of Pasolini’s SALÒ. And while, conceptually, GOAT is a surefire hit, it completely misses the mark when it actually comes to putting its plans into action.
Oh, yeah, James Franco is in it for like 10 minutes, has the best scene in the film, and subsequently makes everything else look even worse by comparison
Alternating between a vérité style camera and a locked, painterly visual aesthetic, GOAT apes the drunken likeness of handheld party footage, as well as the still array of the male form. The latter seek to imitate classical oil paintings, focusing on our perception of these figures as they grow progressively more desensitized to their abuse. Neel certainly understands how to frame this visually, opening his film with a haunting slow motion kegger, later obscuring faces with masks, light, mud, and binding bodies with rope to suggest their growing unity in the face of molestation. Unfortunately these stylish images make for a small percentage of the film’s running time, relegating the rest of the film to the tepid shaky cam.
And though Neel occasionally succeeds in style, he fails almost completely in story and character. For a feature that begins as a character study, GOAT never digs deep enough into Schnetzer’s psyche. His relationship with Jonas is only explored in relation to the fraternity and his mugging, and Jonas never gets enough screen time to do anything but mull over his brother’s experience during the hazing process. The fact of the matter remains that Schnetzer’s character is meant to represent an individual that’s too effeminate for the bro, college lifestyle. Unfortunately this contrast is only explored on the surface, placing him in conflicts where he has to fight to protect his masculinity rather than learn something valuable about the community that surrounds him.
Bros try to be bros but can’t be bros because they’re bros
If Neel intended his film to be viewed as an ensemble piece, it’s all the more catastrophic. Nobody in the Phi Sig fraternity is analyzed with enough attention to detail. Characters feel like cardboard cutouts of confrontational bros, and when attempting to channel their emotional distress regarding the potential shutdown of the fraternity, we never manage to really identify the internal angst and insecurities that make them flawed males as well. Pledges never seem to bail from the rush week despite the hazing, and Neel excuses this through a line delivery about the boys having sex, without ever showing us that the pledges are actually experiencing an increase in their campus reputation. As a film that tries so hard to be about boys clubs and male identity, Neel never really explores anybody’s ideology to full effect.
While it is undeniable that GOAT is confused and consequently half-assed in its countless narrative and thematic threads, it’s still mostly enjoyable, no? Well the truth is, sure, GOAT is entertaining, but only to the same degree that any B-rate torture porn film is. The secret to success in this subgenre is making viewers relate to these characters enough so that I glean remorse, frustration, or satisfaction for the consequences. But the truth is that I never really get to know anybody except Schnetzer in this film. Even when the fallout of the hazing turns dour, I can’t help but feel like I’ve been manipulated into having to feel something only so that the narrative can progress. Characters are not front and center here, and GOAT is all the worse for it.
The red cup all on the lawn shit is front and center here
But perhaps GOAT’s most egregious error is that it is blatantly predictable. Setting aside the fact that the film’s opening sequence only exists to set a litmus test between the consequences of mugging and hazing, GOAT takes way too long to get started. It introduces the fraternity far too late and would have been much better off starting with Schnetzer, beaten black and blue, heading off to his first week of school despite a recent mugging. The beats involving Jonas and his dedication to the fraternity grow in their contrivance, and each dramatic progression develops with the grace of a soap opera’s cliffhanger. And while these dramatic developments aren’t exactly bad, they feel wildly uninspired, existing only to surprise and shock the audience, not inform on the film’s themes. If torture porn is your niche, then GOAT might have a thing or two to show you, but for anyone looking to be intellectually stimulated, Neel has unfortunately dropped the ball on what I thought was the most promising property to premiere at Sundance.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend