Walter Benjamin said that every great work either dissolves a genre or creates a new one. I’m not entirely sure he was right, but the evidence of Goon suggests that a work doesn’t need to be particularly wonderful to do either of those things; sometimes all you need is Seann William Scott forlornly kicking people’s teeth in for an hour and a half. That’s just a fancy way of saying that this soul-corrodingly violent hockey flick is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen. Let’s call it a Comedy of Furors.
Sort of a cross between The Waterboy and Raging Bull, Goon tells the story of kindhearted, dim-bulb Jewish bouncer Doug Glatt (Scott) who really only has one talent in life: pounding people to a pulp. One day, when a player from a visiting hockey team utters a gay slur in his presence, Doug (whose brother is gay) beats the man silly. And just like that, a star is born: Although he can barely skate, Doug joins his local semi-pro team as the resident enforcer — the guy whose job it is to kick the crud out of opposing players. Soon enough, he is called up to join the Halifax Highlanders, a minor league team that needs someone to protect its star player, Xavier Laflamme (Marc-Andre Grondin), who has been living and playing in fear ever since he was nearly killed by another legendary enforcer, Ross “The Boss” Rhea (Liev Schreiber). Much gore ensues.
Based on the book Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey, Goon the movie was written by Jay Baruchel (who plays Doug’s best friend) and Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen’s writing partner on films like Superbad and Pineapple Express. Neither of them is a stranger to the genre of committed pastiche — movies for which the word spoof doesn’t quite do justice. (Think Casa de Mi Padre. Better yet, don’t.) But Goon goes further than those films. Maybe it’s the necessary tension of adapting a nonfiction book, or maybe it’s Michael Dowse’s elegant direction of the genuinely brutal fight scenes (he also directed Take Me Home Tonight, go figure), but the film has weight in ways that you don’t quite expect. Or maybe it’s just Scott’s subdued, slow-burn performance, which may have intended to convey stupidity but actually helps create an overall mood of convincing despair.
But, you might ask, is the movie funny? Yes — but in a very odd way. There are plenty of obvious gags in Goon, but just as often the film pulls back when it could let loose with silliness, as if it’s trying to serve some higher purpose. Where the real hilarity comes from — and it’s a bizarre, conceptual kind of hilarity — is in the very absurdity of welding compelling violence with such a comedic (albeit fact-based) premise. As the brutality ramps up, and the story gains real consequence, for some reason, we actually laugh harder. Goon is a comedy, often a very funny one, but you might be hesitant to call it that once you’ve actually seen it. Walter Benjamin would be proud.