Held up by a phenomenal lead performance, Goat is a good-enough film, held back by a disappointingly lacklustre plot
A somewhat unusual take on the coming-of-age film, Goat is an enjoyable exploration of youth, courage, and masculinity, though it is held back a little by sloppy writing and a sense of aimlessness that, while it might be expected from a film of this kind, here feels unintended, and threatens to pull the viewer out of the film.
The film follows Brad (Ben Schnetzer), who, just before starting college is attacked and badly beaten, leaving him with lasting anxiety and a worry that he lacks courage. In an effort to combat this, Brad joins a fraternity at his college, Phi Sigma Mu, as a “pledge”. Brad’s elder brother Brett (Nick Jonas) is already a member of the fraternity, along with his childhood friend Chance (Gus Halper). Throughout the film, we see Brad undertaking his initiation into the fraternity along with his roommate Will (Danny Flaherty), having to suffer through the “week of hell” – a series of violent, and dangerous challenges.
Largely well put-together, the best parts of Goat come during its action sequences, for lack of a better word. Making up a big chunk of the middle of the film, these are the scenes where the pledges actually undergo their initiation. Dark, violent, occasionally funny, and always verging on the disgusting, the initiation sequences grab your attention spectacularly, playing out kind of like pieces of slow-moving, softcore horror (if that’s a thing – which it definitely is now). As engaging as they are, though, the sequences themselves don’t constitute a plot, and it’s here that Goat starts to fall apart.
The first act is overly meandering, spending much too much time in-between Brad being attacked and arriving at college, during which nothing happens that couldn’t be condensed into a few minutes of screen time. Once it does get going though, Goat still fails to shake off that meandering tone, as director Andrew Neel flip-flops between storylines and ideas, meaning that even though nothing much actually happens throughout the film, it’s still hard to keep up with what you’re seeing. The end of the film, when stuff actually does start to happen in terms of plot-advancements, is then rushed and abrupt, seeming like a hastily put together attempt at a third act for a story that had no idea when or how it was supposed to end.
Overall, the acting in the film is good – which is particularly important in such a character-driven film as this (read: film with little to no real plot). Jonas and Halper give solid supporting performances, though they both struggle to remain entirely convincing during those moments of the film that ask more of them. Jonas’ acting in particular feels a little strained in places, like he’s reaching for an emotion that just isn’t quite there. Flaherty gives another good performance, if one that is a touch more understated than his co-stars, portraying Will’s uncertainty and desire to be accepted without needing to resort to anything overly theatrical, or “hammy”. The real star of the film, though, is Ben Schnetzer in the lead role. He carries the film for its entire duration, remaining at the appropriate level even when his co-stars struggle next to him. His depiction of anxiety, of existential yearning, and of shattered masculinity creates a fleshed-out completeness for his character, and for the film itself.
Goat (2016), directed by Andrew Neel, featured at Sundance Film Festival London 2016.