‘Goat’ review: James Franco, Nick Jonas fratsploitation film critiques masculinity
The trailers for Goat, the Nick Jonas frat movie that premiered at Sundance this past January and hit limited theaters Friday, promise an exposé of the sordid abuses of university Greek life, tempting viewers to with a look at what fraternities really do behind the scenes.
This enticement might as well be found on the back of a Guys Gone Wild DVD — and the fratsploitation isn't far off, visually. The film's opening scene is Corbin Fisher by way of Melina Matsoukas: a tight, slow-motion pan across a group of shirtless, college-aged men, silently screaming under a Skrillex-like drone, nipples and heavy pectorals bobbing in and out of frame. It's titillating, but we never learn exactly where this scene takes place in the film, or what it is they were all screaming about.
This is one of a handful of inscrutable loose ends in Goat that cast an amateurish shadow on what is otherwise a right-minded and not poorly executed film about toxic masculinity and fraternity culture. Goat pulls few punches, depicting the hazing that occurs within fraternities — without a whiff of wistful, locker-room sentimentality.
Brotherhood is a prevailing theme of Goat, both in the familial and the Greek sense. Brad (Ben Schnetzer) is an incoming college freshman at the university where his older brother Brett (Nick Jonas) is a member of Phi Sigma Mu, the daunting "it" fraternity on campus. Leaving a Phi Sigma party one night, Brad is carjacked, an incident that haunts him for much of the rest of the film.
In an attempt to move forward with his life, he pledges Phi Sigma, but pledge week soon echoes the traumatic attack he's trying to move on from. Brett, seeing Brad put through an increasingly sadistic rite of passage, begins to weigh his fraternal loyalties against one another. It's ultimately this tension that brings the reality of fraternity violence into sharp focus for him — though this violence is clear to the audience from the outset.
Goat pulls few punches, depicting with not a whiff of wistful, locker-room sentimentality the hazing that occurs behind the closed doors of a fraternity.
The challenges of Goat's pledge week are not beyond the pale of reason, depending on your opinion of college-aged heterosexual men left to their own devices. The words "pussy" and "faggot" form a soundtrack to physical abuse, forced drinking, blindfolded psychological torture, the expulsion of various bodily fluids and the looming threat of what will be done with the titular goat. ("Goat" is the Phi Sigma brothers' term for pledges.) These episodes of hazing often last for several minutes at a stretch and are difficult to watch.
This is none of the "gentle ribbing" some might like to make it out to be; Goat presents hazing in its rawest form, as a form of physical and psychological control, enacted forcibly by members of a group in order to demean, emasculate and diminish their subjects. Goat demonstrates the social function of hazing, as well as the social permissiveness that surrounds it, the numerous voices who take part or stay quiet rather than speak out against it and the culture of power it engenders.
One of the film's most critical moments is a cameo by James Franco as Mitch, a kind of ur-brother from the graduating class of several years prior, who stops by to pal around the frat. After announcing he can only stay for one drink because he has a wife and kid at home, he proceeds to get belligerently drunk — initiating a Fight Club-ish scene in which he demands to be punched in the stomach — and eventually passes out on a couch, vomit drying on his shirt, his phone vibrating beside him in vain.
This critique recalls another Franco-inflected project, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, which centers on four female college friends caught up in the unexpectedly violent underbelly of Florida's spring break scene. Franco plays Alien, a litigiously Riff Raff–like would-be gangster-rapper, whose introduction throws a harsh light onto what had previously been just fun and games.
Aside from featuring Franco as a kind of Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, both films grapple with moral compromises made in the name of belonging. But whereas the moral quagmire of Spring Breakers is external, a world none of the girls intended to enter at the outset of the film, the pledges of Goat persevere for the sake of gaining entry to Phi Sigma Mu — which offers the pride of belonging to its ultimate survivors. Moreover, its survivors are implicated in perpetuating its culture. They have agency, and they use that to continue a destructive cycle.
A formally closer comparison to Goat is Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some, released in spring of 2016. The film, about a college baseball team in the early 1980s, was considered a thematic sequel to the now-classic Dazed and Confused. Aside from being unwittingly homoerotic, Everybody Wants Some is fantastically dull — a handful of mild situational conflicts among college students with mullet-adjacent haircuts, each young man stuffed into short shorts and tight tees.
Both Everybody Wants Some and Goat are set in exclusive and exclusively male institutions. Both address acceptance and belonging in these specific worlds. And both have a single named female character — in both cases, a romantic interest of one of the men, rendering an immediate Bechdel failure.
The films take opposite positions on the social dynamics of their male enclaves: Whereas Everybody Wants Some finds only good-natured, get-over-it ribbing among its student-athletes, Goat lambasts the brash, suck-it-up-faggot culture of a college fraternity, highlighting the numerous moral concessions fraternity members make in the name of their leader, or their history or their own twisted sense of masculine power.
Several of Franco's and Jonas' projects have pandered to the pop-cultural gay vote, either by inserting themselves in projects with an LGBT focus or audience; playing queer characters; claiming some level of sexual fluidity IRL; or even outright queerbaiting. Intrinsically, a straight-identifying person talking about queerness isn't a bad thing. But for these two actors, it reeks of trend-copping. What interests them about queerness? What is their motivation?
In light of this, expectations for Goat were extremely low, but surprisingly, it's an impressive and effective critique of toxic masculinity, albeit not in so many words.
It would be perhaps too generous to qualify Franco's and Jonas's previous gestures toward the queer community as "woke" to any real extent, but it seems just about generous enough to concede that their efforts have been, if collaterally self-serving, well-intended — attempts to confront homophobia by highlighting queer stories, or "bravely" playing gay themselves. That they've primarily succeeded in angering the gay community is hardly surprising.
Goat succeeds because it is on the right side of history, and because it is in Franco's and Jonas' lane: heterosexual men (we don't believe you, gay James Franco) critiquing the premiere institution for straight white men in America — the college fraternity. Rather than looking in from the outside, Goat critiques masculinity from its cultural core.