Near the end of the disturbing hazing expose, “Goat,” a naive young pledge is pelted in the head with a lemon thrown with Roger Clemens-like speed and accuracy by one of the pudgy lad’s potential future fraternity brothers. It’s a climactic moment in a well-meaning movie based on a memoir by Brad Land graphically recounting the abuse and humiliation he sustained during his barbaric initiation while attending Clemson University. The scene is rightly meant to provoke outrage at the animalistic mentality that’s so much a part of Greek life. But what it does under the feeble direction of Andrew Neel is feel like an apt metaphor for the movie, because “Goat” is indeed a lemon hurled at brute force at our frontal lobes.
It should hurt, yet it doesn’t. How can it when Land offers neither questions, nor answers, to a problem that annually results in the needless deaths of dozens of allegedly intelligent college students? But how can these victims be so smart, yet so dumb to subject themselves to this torture? And what is it that brings out the sadistic tendencies of the boys doing the hazing? Is it a sort of payback for what they endured when they first pledged? Who knows? Land doesn’t seem particularly interested, and neither are the trio of writers who have adapted Land’s book for the screen. They’re all about showing; not telling. The movie, like Land’s 2002 memoir is all surface; more a plea for peace, love and understanding by a self-loather confused by why it took him so long to call foul on something he knew was wrong from the start.
Well, he won’t get any sympathies from me. Unlike a much more heinous on-campus crime — rape — Land always had a choice in the matter. But his machismo, or lack thereof, wouldn’t allow him to summon the courage to make it. So, what are we to make of this self-described “chicken,” who for much of the movie shows zero moxie or gumption? I don’t think even he knows. On the peripheries, you get the inkling he’s trying to make a statement about society’s ridiculous demand that all males be physically tough and mentally strong. But what the movie is overbearingly projecting is a boy afraid of becoming a man who trusts in his principles.
As Land, up-and-comer Ben Schnetzer (“Snowden”) seems confused as well, unsure how to play a smart kid without a spine. It’s a testament to his budding talent that he’s able to mold anything from a character even De Niro would struggle to flesh out. Even better is Schnetzer’s co-lead, Nick Jonas. Yes, THAT Nick Jonas, the youngest member of those annoying teenie-bopping brothers who sent prepubescents into a frenzy a decade ago. He’s all grown up now, and apparently listening intently to his acting coaches. He’s no Timberlake, Wahlberg or Ice Cube yet, but he’s not far off, showing strong chops in the underwritten role of Ben’s younger brother, Brett.
He’s the impetus for Ben’s need to bleed. Although he’s a year younger than Ben, Brett is clearly the alpha of the family, causing Ben to look up to him instead of the other way around. After Ben is humiliated — and beaten within an inch of his life — by a pair of hooded carjackers, his masculinity is at an all-time low. His redemption, he thinks, waits in the not-so-welcome arms of Brett’s fraternity, where he eagerly pledges. But after days on end of being forced to have relations with a goat, being peed on and force fed enough alcohol to keep Charlie Sheen drunk for a month, Ben starts to think this frat thing is overrated.
Where the movie fails most is in getting at why Ben sticks with it. For some of his fellow pledges, or goats as they are called, it’s all about raising your odds of luring coeds into your bachelor dorm. But for Ben, it’s supposedly something more profound — apparently too profound to bother putting into words. Ah, the words. Therein lays the film’s most annoying trend, its utter lack of a vocabulary beyond the writers’ three favorite terms: Bro, dude and the always reliable F-bomb. If “Goat” doesn’t break the Guinness record for overuse of the latter, it can’t have many films in front of it. In fact, if you removed it, as well as “bro” and “dude,” the script would look like a heavily redacted CIA report. And hearing adorable little Nick Jonas drop the F-bomb over and over just seems to go against God’s law.
At least the four-letter vernacular is preferable to the endless scenes of gross-out initiation re-enactments, especially when Ben is blindfolded and led to a toilet where he is forced to pull out what he thinks is a turd (it’s really a banana) and eat it. Come to think of it, that’s an even better metaphor for “Goat,” only what we’re fed ain’t no banana, it’s pure excrement. I only wish I could hit the lever and flush it from my memory.
Cast includes Nick Jonas, Ben Schnetzer, James Franco and Danny Flaherty.
(R for disturbing behavior involving hazing, strong sexual content and nudity, pervasive language, violence, alcohol abuse and some drug use.)