In Andrew Neel’s Goat, co-written with David Gordon Green and Mike Roberts, and based on the memoir by Brad Land, faces disappear for the protagonist Brad, his brother and the boys in Sigma Alpha Mu. They “mesh” together, as they are asked to by one of the superiors within the fraternity and anonymous representatives of fragmented masculinity. Though the audience may recognize most of them as people with mildly distinctive features, that dissipates in the ascent to a status of fraternal and masculine idealism, at least within the context of university bros.
What Brad (Ben Schnetzer) and most of the pledges don’t understand is the facile nature of the hierarchy, only propped up by so-called legacy and privilege. Rather, the ones in power, and the ones that abuse it, are there because they played into the shambolic institution like the animal of the title. This institution, as it were, is made up of powerful actors representing the Ideal Cis Straight White Guy. Their backgrounds, passions and aspirations are irrelevant: those in power, and those seeking to join the brotherhood, must fit within this rigid archetype of masculinity. You see it in the faces of guys in the title sequence: Neel’s camera pans across boys “mewling,” teeth bared, shirts off and, in slow-motion — almost like a visual allusion to Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. It doesn’t matter if it’s anger, fear, excitement or euphoria. The nuances of the performance don’t matter as long as they’re not transgressed.
And so, much of this performance of masculinity has to do with the language that’s used: “bitch, “faggot,” “fag,” “pussy,” “man,” “bro,” “dude.” It’s not only the slurs that are weaponized, but also the words that are ostensibly used out of familiarity and connection. There’s a duality to the language here, that anything can be used “jokingly,” but these words are serrated as well, and their usage is entirely dependent on the user’s context. The latter three words are able to switch their meanings and their intentions in mere seconds, the aggression amplified exponentially. In essence, the language used in Goat proves that no one is safe, no one is nice and the performative masculinity of this culture and fraternity is meant as a weapon.
There’s an irony there, of course, as part of the frat’s longstanding traditions is its very pledge, a poorly written song that supposedly values “brothers standing side by side” and “through and through.” It is hard to discern how earnest this is, and that might have to do with my own distance from frat culture. There’s a glint in everyone’s eyes that they don’t really believe it, that the platitudes made mean little in the long run and that much of this is situational bonding.
But it’s bonding nonetheless, and part of the most interesting elements of Goat are in the way the film deals with this type of masculinity and its toxicity. An element of queer theory posits that heterosexuality is contingent on repetition, and in a Lacanian way, there is not only a repetition of language, action and movement within the frat, but also a form of mirroring. Through the abuse that the pledges endure, they have to mirror not only one another, but, aspirationally, the abusers. Dixon, Wes, and Brett all say, at one point or another in the film, that they “had to go through this when [they] were pledging.” Tradition and repetition become a substitute for self-actualization; the individual identities of these pledges do not matter.
Goat then frames masculinity as the destroyer of things. It is the arbiter of dehumanization, homophobia, misogyny, malice and persecution. What it means to be a “man” here is to exert power over everyone and to deny them agency. Masculinity becomes monstrous.
Part of that mirroring process is an ironic and cruel approach to homosexuality and queerness: many of the tasks that pledges are sent through not only involve shirtlessness, but a direct confrontation with queer sexuality and sexual acts — from having the pledges blindfolded and told to suck one of the brothers’ “dicks” (it is actually a sausage) to bobbing for hot dogs and being tied up together. The sadism of these tasks is inextricable from its queerness: masculinity is either revoked from these people or turned into an object for the queer gaze. Certainly all the guys in the frat would self-identify as straight, but what is the pleasure of turning someone else’s masculinity into a thing of submission, divorcing it from its colloquial association with power? Ironic gayness permeates bro culture, and that too ends up being a performance of heterosexuality and of masculinity. But these pledges are, to use binarist terms, being feminized, at once the thing that threatens them the most and serves as the most entertaining for the voyeurs.
So, if Goat is focused on the dynamics of power and submission within the context of masculinity and, to go further, identity, Brad’s involvement makes sense. His decision to rush for the fraternity, at the behest of his older brother, is very much catalyzed after he’s assaulted after a party. He doesn’t fight back and the knowledge of this haunts him. For Brad, the abuse he endured was like the revocation of his masculine identity. Every beat, breath and step is about Brad negotiating to what degree his masculinity matters to him enough to endure these tests. Schnetzer gives an enthralling performance that simultaneously aches and terrifies. The extremity of the fraternity’s demands are reminders of the event, but the storied goal and end point is enough of an aspiration for it to be a reclamation of his masculinity. He is consistently concerned with that throughout the film, looking again and again at the selfie he took after his assault on his shattered phone screen. He takes new ones, to show the progress of his healed face, but the fragments and spidery webs of cracks in the screen are still there.
Goat’s brutality is relentless, taking cues from David Gordon Green’s naturalist aesthetic and sonically from horror films like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Eraserhead. The silence is as deafening as the ear splitting music at parties, the hacking from very sick pledges and the buzz of a call from one of the frat brothers. Neel frames his characters tight, as if this toxic masculinity is inescapable, only leaning back for wise shots after the carnage is over and all that’s left is the debris in front of “respected” institutions. Nick Jonas is more interesting as an enabler of his younger brother’s descent into Hell, but the meta-text of his All American Boyishness, seemingly condoning acts of inhumanity, is slyly subversive for enough of the film, until he abruptly becomes its “moral core.” Even if Neel makes a lousy Final Girl, Goat is an excellent monster movie, where the monster is toxic masculinity itself.
Kyle Turner (@tylekurner) is a freelance writer, editor and transcriber who has contributed to Esquire, MUBI, Playboy, Flavorwire, Brooklyn Magazine, The Film Stage, Film School Rejects, Under the Radar, and IndieWire’s /Bent. He is studying cinema at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.