Sundance Film Festival
“The pledges have to go through hell, or what’s the f—ing point?” It’s a question posed toward the end of Andrew Neel’s “Goat” by cruel fraternity pledgemaster Dixon (Jake Picking), and the film provides no easy answer.
We live in isolating, estranging times that can often leave young people separated from their very essence. The pressures for college-aged men today, at a time when centuries of male hegemony are being upended by gender equality, can often take on a dark tenor that drives reckless behavior. The Greek system is meant to provide belonging, community and brotherhood. Its current practice frequently perverts these ideals into violence, sadism and outright cruelty.
When Brad Land (Ben Schnetzer) enters Phi Sigma Mu, it’s due in large part to the presence of his older brother Brett (Nick Jonas) already being a brother. But there’s more than just family loyalty behind the decision to rush – Brad is still recovering from a mugging incident that left bruises on his body and pride. The fraternity becomes a space in which he can reclaim the masculinity he feels those brutes took from him that fateful night.
The Phi Sigma Mu residence, in particular the basement where so much hazing takes place, houses many distinct personalities with their own issues they look to the organization to solve. Some are looking for validation of their future prospects. Others are trying to resolve their sexual frustrations with women, even going as far as engaging in acts with homoerotic undertones that replace the contact they miss. All taken together, the brothers create and perpetuate a system in which violence and humiliation only begets further violence and humiliation. Their credo states “All My Strength Is In My Union,” but the initiation rituals only sew discord and mistrust.
The target of Neel’s rage is not the fraternity system. It’s toxic masculinity. “Goat” offers little in the way of pointers as to how this can be overcome. But we do get a little bit of hope in observing the progressing relationship dynamics between the blood brothers Brad and Brett. The elder feels no need to help his younger sibling upon entering rush; in fact, he probably goes harder on him to avoid accusations of favoritism. Yet the more that hazing breaks Brad’s spirits, the more Brett begins to realize that so little about Phi Sigma Mu actually matters. Through Brett’s genuine compassion, they take strides toward making peace with the fraternity. That empathy provides a nice twinge of hope after being party to some misguided acts of true brutality. B+ /