Andrew Neel’s manly melodrama “Goat” is a movie about fraternity hazing that goes heavy on the haze. Roughly half of its 96-minute running time consists of scenes of handsome young college students getting blind drunk and degrading each other with escalating weirdness. At first, the parties are just boozy bacchanals with ear-splitting dance music and strippers — or co-eds who don’t mind being treated like strippers. But as the Brookman University chapter of Phi Sigma Mu ramps up its pledge-period, and moves into “Hell Week,” all the slap-fights, grab-ass, and serial shot-downing evolves into prospective brothers being blindfolded and force-fed bananas that they’ve been told are turds. When “Goat” is rolling, Neel effectively recreates the delirium of bros on a bender, illustrating how the line of acceptable behavior gets fuzzier and fuzzier.
It’s good that “Goat” has so many of those scenes, because whenever the movie gets out of the frat-house, Neel and his co-writers Mike Roberts and David Gordon Green are on shakier ground. The film is based on Brad Land’s memoir of the same name, and stars Ben Schnetzer as Brad, a popular, clean-cut American kid whose plans to go to Bookman and pledge Phi Sigma Mu — just like his cool older brother Brett (Nick Jonas) — go awry when over the summer he gets beaten to a pulp by a couple of car thieves, posing as friends of the frat. So, “Goat” follows two parallel stories: Brad’s attempts to deal with his PTSD (and to get some closure on the attack), and his nightmarish trip through Phi Sigma Mu’s idea of Hell.
Neel and company develop the former thread sporadically, dropping it when it’s inconvenient before bringing it back in a big way during the film’s sputtering ending. The movie’s much more interested in the hazing material; yet even there, the plot follows a fairly familiar arc. The title refers to what Phi Sigma Mu calls its pledges, who are forced to wallow in muck and push themselves to exhaustion in the name of male bonding, all for the reward of a climactic “ceremony” where they’re told they’ll be required to have sex with their namesake animal. The misery escalates and escalates until a tragedy occurs, and an inseparable brotherhood splinters into backstabbers and finger-pointers. The differences between “Goat” and a Very Special Episode of some Disney Channel sitcom are, at times, limited to the amount of on-screen puking.
That said, Neel, Roberts, and Green do have a good feel for the vagaries of bro culture’s macho codes. Whenever they minimize the plot and maximize the experience, “Goat” actually gets somewhere. In one of the movie’s best scenes, James Franco (who’s also a co-producer) pops up as a legendarily wild Phi Sigma Mu alum who intends just to have a quick beer at the house and ends up staying for hours, getting rowdier and rowdier. “Goat” works well when it shows instead of tells — when the audience gets to see firsthand how guys egg each other on and pump each other up, finding some kind of phony justification for even their worst behavior.
That extends to the thematic and narrative connections between Brad’s attack and his pledge woes. The whole reason he gets into trouble in the first place is because a couple of dudes in hoodies said that they were coming from a Phi Sigma Mu party and needed a ride. Wanting, as always, to be a “good guy,” Brad ignored the warning signs and let them into his car. And then he kept driving with them out into the middle of nowhere when that trip was clearly going to end badly. That scene establishes early on that “Goat” actually does have something to say about how the manly value of “toughness” and “loyalty” can get corrupted — especially when soaked in buckets of alcohol.
Neel, though, has a hard time staying consistent with what “Goat” is trying to say, and how it’s saying it. For a long time, he makes the smart decision to strip the movie of any authority figures (parents, teachers, et cetera), such that when an officious university administrator appears toward the end, it feels like a failure of nerve on the filmmakers’ part, like they didn’t trust that they could tell the story without artificial plot-drivers. Despite its disapproving tone toward fraternity depravity, “Goat” doesn’t spare the gratuitous nudity or voyeuristic gawking. At its core, this is really an old-fashioned exploitation film — one that clucks its tongue over a social problem while inviting its audience to enjoy the spectacle. The spectacle is actually pretty spectacular. The tongue-clucking not so much. [B-]