By Julia Clausen
“Goat” is a story of brothers — both the manufactured fraternity term and the actual familial relationship between Brett and Brad Land (played by Nick Jonas and Ben Schnetzer) — whose life experiences in the university Greek system inspired the 2005 memoir of the same name.
Produced by James Franco and written by David Gordon Greer, “Goat” offers an intense but artistically understated look at a particular, yet representative college fraternity and the system of (predominantly white) male aggression that it perpetuates.
Full of cruel and unusual hazing, emotional repression and impossible lifestyle standards, this film has it all. In fact, the hazing sequences go so far as to intentionally mimic the play-acting harassment of the Stanford Prison Experiment with pledges lined up against the wall, forced to drink cup after cup of alcohol while brothers shout at them, “No one loves you! You don’t have any friends!” over and over.
And yet, in the midst of the violence, the bond between the two Land brothers remains intact to put all of the hard-earned “love” between fraternity brothers into perspective.
While the film focuses on Brad, his character is defined entirely by what he is not: namely, his older, stereotypically masculine brother, Brett. Within the first five minutes of the film, Brad is robbed and beaten to a pulp by two strangers he foolishly offers to drive home, meanwhile Brett is happily oblivious, having sex with a girl he met at a party. Brett is the attractive, tough, and charismatic impossible standard that Brad spends the entire film trying (and failing) to live up to.
However, neither brother is ever judged in these contrasting moments for what he says or how he acts. Instead they are placed in opposition of each other, just as their frustrating but genuine connection is placed in opposition to the cruel world of fraternity brotherhood, leaving the audience to consider what really matters.
Additionally, James Franco makes a cameo as an alumnus of the fraternity, returning to the scene of his glory days, now as a family man with a child of his own. He displays his affection by screaming at his brothers, “Get down here, you faggot, and suck my dick!” (Translation: Get down here and give me a hug because I’ve missed you.)
Later Franco’s character explains to Brad that he is never allowed to be vulnerable to attack again. “That can’t happen again,” he shouts before ordering Brad to punch him repeatedly in the stomach. This is a rare moment of honesty about the requirements of this brand of masculinity, poignantly coming from the mouth of the film’s most prominent father figure.
And while some of the hazing scenes may seem ludicrous and hyperbolic, “Goat” is deeply rooted in a reality — a reality to which UCI is not immune.
In 2006, a Cal Poly Pomona student pledging with UCI’s Lambda Phi Epsilon fraternity in an attempt to start a chapter at his own school was killed in what we now agree was hazing, despite the hesitance to admit it. The fraternity in question was suspended, but continued underground. After a drawn-out investigation, not a single fraternity member faced criminal charges of any kind. The victim’s family did successfully sue the fraternity to achieve some sense of justice, however limited.
Ultimately, nothing was ever done to eliminate hazing from UCI fraternity culture, and the practice still continues throughout campuses around the country.
However, “Goat,” as a film, is in a unique position to reveal the dark underbelly of the toxic masculinity of fraternities, without ever faulting any individual person involved in such a system. All characters participate willingly, and yet are all victims of their own expectations.
When the fraternity comes under scrutiny for the incident, Brett rats them out after realizing the damage he caused his own brother by participating in these rituals, leading to a conclusion far more optimistic than that of UCI’s own death-by-hazing.
Brad in turn seems to break the cycle of aggression by not identifying his attacker in a police lineup, allowing him to go free. When asked why, all Brad can say is, “They all look the same.”
Whether “they” refers to the men in the lineup or to the “brothers” who tortured him for sport is up to the audience to decide.