Director Andrew Neel says there are two kinds of violence in his disturbing frat film Goat: the drunk fumbling and punching that young men “have to go through because they can say I love you, man,” and the catastrophic, “real world” aggression that grown men inflict on each other. Neel calls that latter variety, male rage, a pandemic.
“So many of our problems, even women’s issues, stem from the way men feel about themselves,” he tells Inverse. “We can teach girls to combat and avoid victimization, but we’re not going to get anywhere until we face what’s going on inside men.”
Goat’s cast, a Jonas brother and noted homoeroticist Franco, suggests a tongue-in-cheek, baudy film, but it’s much more pure, and grim, than that. Goat tells the story of boys torturing other boys, some for power and others for connection, but it’s neither a cautionary tale nor a call to shut down fraternities. It’s just, Neel says, a representation of what men do to each other in order to feel something.
He says technology is to blame, in part, for the state of young men as they exist and party today. “We’re programmable animals, and technology has taken away a huge chunk of our interactions with others, so we create these forced communities and overshoot the attempt to foster connections.” He names fraternities, gangs, the military, and prisons as typical all-male breeding grounds for violent behavior, and says that teaching men not to communicate their needs, and to compete with each other constantly, will always result in scenes like the ones in Goat.
Neel’s film opens with a close, slow motion shot of shirtless college boys screaming and spilling beer everywhere. The veins in their necks bulge, their muscles are taut, and the camera focuses on them so intently, and for so long, that they start to look like animals. Neel says he was reaching for a Lord of the Flies aesthetic while making the film. “I don’t know what we should be doing as far as policy, but we need open dialogues. We should acknowledge that men are going to feel certain urges, especially when they’re at this age. We’re biologically designed to feel aggression, and we have to be prepared to express and deal with it, rather than letting that pressure build.”
When the pressure builds inside Goat’s protagonist, Brad (Ben Schnetzer), he submits himself to booze-soaked, denigrating hazing rituals at the hands of his fraternity brothers, including his actual brother Brett (Nick Jonas). Brad, having been viciously attacked by a pair of anonymous dudes at the start of the film, endures psychological and physical distress before finally attempting to name his attackers. The camera lingers on the faces of haggard men in the line-up, at the end of the film, and Neel says they’re examples of what a lifetime of turmoil will eventually do to the young characters in the film: It will eventually break them. When asked what motivates the muggers in the beginning of the film, as compared to what motivates the elder fraternity brothers, Neel says both groups are victim to “the same dark forces at work.” He says, “Some men leave fraternities and grow up to lead healthy, normal lives, but not everyone.”
How did Neel get his cast to experiment with those dark urges? He says it was a combination of letting takes go on too long for comfort and in loosening up all the blocking and choreography. “They’re actors, so this is their job, but if you let someone engage with that part of themselves for long enough, and let the take just go on, and on, they can go deeper and darker.” The way Neel describes it, Jonas, Franco, and Schnetzer are simply using cruelty and savage anger that’s living dormant inside them. “Every man, whether he was in a fraternity or not, has experienced some form of man-to-man hazing,” he says.
The frat boys in Goat slap, punch, and spit on each other, mostly to impress others or work younger boys into submission. Characters in the film repeat the term “brother,” which begins to feel ironic because the primary protagonists are biological brothers; they share the bond the others hope for without having had to torture each other to get there. Neel seems to think that the misconception that hazing breeds brotherhood and trust comes from the way contemporary society instructs very young men to cope with their urges: to repress sadness, fear, and affection so deep into the subconscious that the only pure reaction that remains is rage. Is he correct, statistically? It’s little more than a theory, based on the research Neel conducted in order to make Goat, but the film is so arresting in its depiction of an all-male environment that it’s difficult to reject Neel’s ideas.
Goat opens in theaters nationwide September 23.