[Readers, I recommend that you see the film first to avoid spoilers contained in the following article but it is up to you as this analysis is meant to raise questions and perspective to your viewing experience.]
Gestalt psychology was based around set patterns and the perception of these patterns. It was how the viewer perceived that specific pattern that could give insight to their inner conflicts. Goat made its limited theatrical release back on September 23rd and is currently available on iTunes. The film deals with the repercussions of individuals who fall into a set pattern. The pattern here is the controversial ordeal of “hazing.” A long time tradition found on campus grounds where a Fraternity would rush junior pledges through a series of obstacles all so they could get a chance to join that Frat house a.k.a. Brotherhood. The depth of the rush week tradition, and the series of events that occur, are much harsher than a simple prank all in the name of good fun.
Not meant to be fun
Goat, directed by Andrew Neel, written by David Gordon Green, Andrew Neel and Mike Roberts, based off of the memoir book by Brad Land and produced by James Franco, is exactly the trip through the deep, dark and horrific depths of that life. There is no fun to be had while viewing this film and nor is it meant to be. The movie opens with a distorting and eerie shot showing a group of frat boys, in a semi-circle, yelling and looking down towards something or someone off-camera though we do not see exactly what they are directing their attention to. The speed is slow and the sounds are ruffled, with only the tense atmospheric music by Arjan Miranda to tell the audience that they are going to embark on a serious ride through something beyond rationale comprehension. This shot is very important to the overall story arc that will come into play much later though this specific scene will not.
The viewer is introduced to Brad (Ben Schnetzer, Warcraft: The Beginning and Pride) who is getting a glimpse at frat house life by attending a party by Phi Sigma Mau; a fraternity currently co-headed by his older brother Brett (Nick Jonas, Scream Queens and Careful What You Wish For). The spectacle of the party and the exhibitions by intoxicated college girls seem too good to be true, and Brad is shown to be reserved and respectful; his soul pure and will not engage in the harder side of the party ala drugs. Brad leaves the party alone, since Brett decided to stay at the house in favor of hooking up with one of the intoxicated girls, and offers aid to two guys who need a ride. Brad’s innocence puts him into jeopardy here when the two guys lure him onto a dark, country road and proceed to bludgeon him; robbing him of not just his belongings but his very being.
This introduction is central to establishing the fracture that weakens Brad’s own psyche. The audience is cleverly let into this character’s state through the visual of a selfie Brad has taken with his face badly beaten and bruised but with the cracks of the cell phone screen over top of him. The cracks stand not just in the literal but the figurative sense and we will see when he updates a picture later on how this changes.
Brad decides that he will join Brett and the other Fraternity members that following school year. We are introduced to Fraternity head Chance (Gus Halper, Power) who genuinely welcomes Brad to partake in the activities. While Brett is happy to see his brother pursuing the path to the frat house, he also has reservations that perhaps Brad won’t be able to handle it especially having gone through a traumatic experience. We are also briefly introduced to Will (Danny Flaherty, The Americans and Skins (2011)) as Brad’s roommate who instantly wants to join the fraternity as his chance at social acceptance. Will is the archetype for the average student who is not the most popular but will push himself and risk his own personal wellbeing for that opportunity to just be normal. Could be considered that Will is another depiction of Brad’s conscience and what might have been if not for his fortunate genes, guidance of his older brother, and his own haunting experience.
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Hell Week for the Goat
Before “Hell Week” commences, which is the one initial week where all pledges (nicknamed “Goats”) will be tasked by the fraternity, there is a very important scene where Chance sits with Brett and Brad in a private study, complete with Cuban cigars. Where the audience was first lead to believe Chance is going to be the antagonist of the story, we see that he is actually rejected by his own Father and relies on the acceptance of his frat brothers and that lifestyle. The filmmakers here have not only created sympathy for the lead character, but also a secondary character that one would easily have otherwise being stereotyped.
Former Fraternity leader, and now alumni of 15 years, Mitch (James Franco, 127 Hours and The Spider-Man Trilogy) arrives on the scene to check out the house and is instantly welcomed by the current class. Mitch’s involvement in the film, however minimal, plays one of the most significant symbolic roles. We learn that he is married with a wife and children who are waiting for him back home after his visit. What began as a simple stop eventually led to Mitch sticking around for a house party complete with the booze and raucous antics. He meets Brad and engages in a psycho-therapeutic exchange of slaps and punches. This releases something within Brad while satisfying Mitch. Mitch is a man who seems to have gone to have a successful career yet comes back and cannot resist the temptation of overindulging in alcohol, reliving his youth, and reliving the violent tendencies that had once existed. It’s his fixation to still feel wanted, despite having a family who loves him back home, that brings him back. This is the damage caused by joining the Fraternity in the first place but the viewer does not yet know exactly what Mitch represents. Mitch is similar to a soldier reliving war time because he cannot escape it no matter how recognized a veteran he may be.
Duality plays a major role in the film as each character deals with internal conflict. The hazing begins on the goats, and when it does, Chance is no longer the empathetic being we saw him as, but rather a leader and instigator of torture. Even Brett lives up the ritual and joins his frat brothers in the antics. The audience is lured into this mistreatment much the same way Brad and Will are, and the film asks whether or not we are ready to experience the hell week just as the characters do. As the goats are lined up, a senior frat member Dixon (Jake Picking, Dirty Grandpa) serves as the drill sergeant. During the initiation, he makes a point to tell the goats that he does not want to see them as individuals but as one unit combined together. This line dialogue is key to the allusion of the fear and eventual long-term damage to the mind.
In many ways, the parallels between the military soldiers and the fraternity members are brought forward all throughout the movie. Once Brett begins to see the disturbing effects and grotesque displays of testosterone fueled bullying, he questions the value and what drives one to want to be part of this society. We get a scene where Dixon goes to Brett and when questioned, he basically tells Brett that because they went through it, they have to put the new pledges through that or worse. Once again, the audience sees the duality as the terrifying sergeant Dixon has let his guard down for one moment to show that he is still dealing with his own initiation from years past.
Unfortunately for Will…
Goat engulfs the viewer into the underground pledge world, wisely set in the underground for that matter, when the fraternity takes the pledges into the basement. This sequence depicts one of the most horrific elements of the film, where the pledges are brutalized by gang-violence and forced intoxication. It might be fun, however disturbing for the audience to see the crimes committed in a Rob Zombie film such as The Devil’s Rejects, but these are not backwoods maniacs out for slaughter – these are all kids, getting an education, and engaging in dark acts. On the bright side, drinking heavily and partying seems to be the perfect way to kick back and let loose, but now the same bottles are used as weapons; not the bottles themselves but the liquid inside. Constantly bombarded with various drinks while doing challenge after challenge, it makes the audience put their own drink down and think to themselves about the hurtful reality and poison that can be put into their systems. Unfortunately for Will, he throws up after one too many, and is penalized and put into a cage. The events that immediately follow this are disgusting. Trapped in the cage like an animal, the fraternity boys then gather around and urinate on him, beating the cage, pouring alcohol and other food and whatnot substances down onto the trapped student. This degradation rapes Will of any dignity he once had. He is not penetrated in a sexual way, but in an emotional and psychiatric context for which one cannot recover from. No matter how strong one may be, the thought of being on the receiving end of that treatment: dazed, confused, intoxicated, vying for acceptance – all these things remain in the regions of the brain. Will woke the next morning with his fellow pledges, cleans himself off, and goes about the day but the stress it took, and subsequent actions by the fraternity, leads to a deadly result.
Brad constantly questions his own strength and manhood, even to his brother, as to why he did not fight back during the assault, and enduring this treatment of exercises is his way of overcoming those doubts. He needs to be there just like the current frat boys because to him, he has lost everything. Much in the same way Mitch had become co-dependent on the addiction of receiving violent treatment as a way of bonding; Brad also goes about punching his fellow pledges when asked. Brett realizes the danger that Brad has gotten himself into; not only has this caused tension between two brothers, but tension among the fraternity.
After a tragic situation where in the fraternity is jeopardized, Brett is able to make the conscious decision to do the right thing. Remember, it was Brett who chose to go back to the party rather than accompany his brother home that night. Thus, Brett has been haunted by his own guilt and self-doubt whether he had made the right choices. Being party to the new pledge activities further opened his eyes to the monsters that lurked inside him and his frat brothers. While they all considered it ritual, and right- of-passage, it was in fact inherently evil. This film was not about good and bad though, it was about good people doing bad things while striving to meet the standards of a social norm. Chance, Dixon, and the rest of the fraternity are stripped of their power and reveal what true damaged and misguided individuals they are once they have nothing.
In the closing moments, Brad and Brett return home and Brad is given the opportunity by local authorities to see a line-up of potential suspects that may have assaulted him. Brad is unable to identify the individual and even Brett wonders if Brad had intentionally let the guy off the hook. Brad simply replies “They all looked the same.” Despite escaping and overcoming the ordeals of pledging a fraternity, Brad sees nothing more than one unit. Dixon had said he wanted to see the goats as not individuals but as one unit, and the establishing shot of the film now reveals itself as we are the receiving end of the bullying and how it is all perceived as one, one unit, one group, one traumatic memory. Gone is the distinction of an individual’s humanity and they are simply a lost soul forever scarred.
The film works as an independent feature because it immediately sets the tone and through the editing, be it close ups and expressions on faces, to the masterful dialogue, it contains more insight than the viewer may get upon first viewing. It is almost too dark to be mainstream but too intricate and ingenious to be in the direct-to-video bargain bin. Ben Schnetzer’s portrayal of Brad is exceptional because he opens up to showing that he is in constant struggle of his role in the world, this character’s fighting to find himself and not just be a victim of an assault or a shadow in his brother’s light. There is not a moment where you feel disconnected with his character. Films are not shot in sequence most of the time, and yet Ben played the various degrees of intensity to create a cohesive flow over the course of 96 minutes. Nick Jonas tops himself, above and beyond his character Nate in the television series ‘Kingdom’, because he starts out appearing one-dimensional but soon we see the same duality that plays through the rest of the film. The emotional strife he allows to show in Brett’s face, eyes, and actions, are resonant of our own cores; triggering feelings inside ourselves of doubt and how we choose to deal with situations. The love, doubt, fear and strength for his brother propels itself off the screen and into our hearts with every scene thus asking us what truly constitutes if a person is doing right or wrong? Danny Flaherty’s Will, as discussed earlier, is the opposite end to that particular spectrum. Will’s journey is pathetic; does the audience really want to see this kid endure or is his ignorance of the brutality happening to him make us want to see him take more just to see if he can. That barbaric sickness that lays dormant in our genes from the beginning of time is toyed with, deliberately, by the filmmakers all the while showing us the disgusting and post-traumatic stress inducing results.
Goat was nominated for the Grand Special Prize at the Deauville Film Festival and also the Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. While it is a clearly a genre outing in the drama category, the film reminds us that you don’t need a mask-wearing, machete-slaying, killer stalking the streets in order to see the reality of horror in our own humanity; a horror that secretly exists inside all of us and God help us if ever truly released.
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