by Diego Semerene (Lecturer, The American University of Paris)
previously published on The House Next Door
In the opening shot from Goat, a mob of delectably smooth male torsos can be glimpsed jumping up and down in slow motion, bonding against the camera. These young white males scream at the lens, as if intimidating and courting the audience at the same time. Together they form a kind of trompe l’oeil, the singularity of each person lost for the sake of the group. Are they brothers or soldiers? Are they twins or doubles? Are they in a battlefield or in an orgy? Their cinematic hazing is our invitation to an unabashed look at the dynamic of the fraternity—that bizarre, if not pathetic, enterprise of a decidedly American hetero-masculinity that makes Europeans laugh. And they certainly did at Berlinale’s press screening.
This initial sequence from Andrew Neel’s follow-up to King Kelly captures the murderous ethos of the fraternity multitude, meant to mask the frailty that each of its members would fall victim to were they to stand on their own. (A brief cameo by James Franco, who plays a former frat brother, is a highlight for the way it suggests that these boys are doomed to a life of alcoholic numbness.) The film never lives up to the conceptual synthesis and force of its introductory sequence, ending up taking an overtly traditional narrative approach, but it renders visible what a lot of us have known for a long time, but didn’t have the language to articulate: heterosexuality can be very gay.
Goat is really a never-consummated love story between Brad (Ben Schnetzer) and his older brother, Brett (Nick Jonas). Although the characters use the term “brother” lightly, it’s difficult to know if their kinship is biological. Brett belongs to the Phi Sigma Mu frat, which Brad wants to join. Except that the pledging process involves drinking until you puke, sleeping inside cages soaked in your own piss, Abu Ghraib-style military role-playing, getting soaked in the urine of others, wrestling half-naked with bodies bathed in excrement, doing push-ups while saying, “I’m a faggot and nobody likes me,” and possibly gangbanging a goat in the woods.
It’s a refreshing and overdue exposure of the violence that white male privilege breeds and needs to reassert itself. Apart from the gangbang, none of that seems to be a problem for Brad, except that he was recently a victim of a violent assault when he had his car stolen—and the fraternity’s theatrics feel like re-enactments of a violence that he’s already experienced without having agreed to it. The fact that Brad has been a victim taints him like a Scarlett letter denouncing a glitch in the meticulously ritualized phallic machinery that’s the fraternity. In the series of seemingly endless, and progressively erotic, steps to becoming a member of the frat, Brad tries hard to mimic the other boys, repressing all emotions except aggression. But he’s a party pooper, letting his feelings show and refusing to go along with the torture porn that is the pledge. This triggers a dramatic domino-like effect on the entire group, whose coherence requires the hermetic disavowal of all male fragility.
Goat suggests a live-action rendition of conceptual artist Barbara Kruger’s legendary meme (made before it was called that) featuring an image of male lookalikes horsing around with one another juxtaposed with the sentence “You construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men.” For a film about hetero-masculinity’s most hardcore litmus tests, women are noticeably absent—except from occasional scenes that show Jonas having sex and snorting coke with some girls in a gratuitous attempt to Miley Cyrus his anodyne image. Who needs them when the men divide themselves between “masters” and “bitches”?
Goat is a refreshing and overdue exposure of the violence that white male privilege breeds and needs to reassert itself. It’s a more important film than it thinks it is, as it deploys a shaky camera and all sorts of out-of-focus affectations that never match the traditional literality of its script. Its artistic ambitions may only ever be cosmetic, but its indictment is real.