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To a young man, there are no more persuasive words in the English language than, “Don’t be a pussy.” In Goat, a disturbing new film, that particular four-word grouping is only uttered once, but it’s whispered in the shadows of every scene. The incisive drama from director Andrew Neel takes viewers inside the hazing rituals at Sigma Phi, a real-life fraternity. Adapted from the memoir of a person who survived similar rituals, it paints an unsparing portrait of toxic masculinity and subverts the muted, comedic portrayals of fraternity life that have been a staple of cinema ever since Animal House.
In other words, welcome to Hell Week. The opening image of Goat is a slo-mo pan across the faces of a dozen screaming, shirtless young men. Are they happy or angry? Are they preparing for war or merely celebrating a kegstand? Do they know the difference? For these boys on the verge of manhood, violence and love are all swirled around in the same toxic sludge.
The rich, young, white men of Sigma Phi frat are constantly professing their love for each other, but, for reasons the film can’t quite explain, they couple that love with abuse. The brothers force their pledges to drink excessively, sleep in cages, get urinated on, and receive an entire bottle of hot sauce in their mouths. In one disbelief-suspending sequence, they scare their recruits into thinking they will be forced to have sex with a goat. With what has come before, it seems no idle threat. The level of brutality calls to mind opening third of Full Metal Jacket, in which a young Army recruit is abused to the point of suicide.
Neel depicts these horrors with few directorial flourishes, instead sticking to a minimalist indie aesthetic that lets his characters’ awful actions speak for themselves. The story goes through Brad (Ben Schnetzer), a freshman who is clearly too sensitive for the frat—he wears glasses and has long hair, see—but is pressured by his older brother (Nick Jonas), one of the frat’s most respected members, to join and stick with it.
Goat has a tendency to be trite and undercooked, but it gains specificity when filtered through Brad’s unique experience. In the opening scenes, he is attacked and brutalized by a pair of strangers, who Brad unwisely has offered a ride to. His physical wounds heal, but the shame for not fighting back—for not acting like a man—never does, and the opportunity to prove his toughness to his brother and his brother’s friends is impossible to back down from. Whatever else happens, Brad will not be a pussy.
In essence, Goat depicts a sheep among wolves, and the only scenes that feel untrue are the ones that imply the sheep are winning. If Brad’s journey as a pacifist in a war zone doesn’t quite resonate, it’s only because hate and violence is a bigger part of our world these days than quiet strength, and it’s hard to believe that a person of his sensitivity could make it out with his dignity intact. This puts the viewer on both the right and wrong side of things in Goat. As conflicts arise, Brad and others try to stand up to their torturers, and you’ll find yourself hoping the right guys get punched. Whether that’s a solution or just another bloody click in a cycle of violence is up to you.
Goat opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-up.