Understanding Goon: Nice Guys Finish First
March 11, 2012 14 Comments
I had the pleasure of writing this review with my friend and colleague at Queen’s University, Marty Clark. Marty is an emerging scholar in the field of Hockey Studies and a hell of a nice guy in his own right. His research focuses primarily on conceptions of whiteness within the NHL and his PhD dissertation examines how race is constructed in hockey through the media representations of Gordie Howe. Hopefully we can convince Marty to grace Hockey in Society’s pages on a regular basis…
We recently caught up with Goon (2012), a film about a Massachusetts bouncer named Doug Glatt (played by Seann William Scott) who literally fights his way into a role as a minor hockey league enforcer. There has been no shortage of reviews and commentaries on Goon since the film entered the public consciousness well before it’s February 24th release date (including excellent posts from Hockey in Society’s own Courtney Szto and Mark Norman). We wanted to check out Goon because it entered theatres at a particularly interesting time given the NHL’s 2011 ‘Summer of Sorrow,’ the ongoing debates surrounding brain injuries, the murky state of Sidney Crosby’s season, and Brian Burke’s recent efforts to address homophobia in professional hockey. We think this film is worthy of a lengthy discussion because of how it easily diffuses these potentially disruptive issues while reinforcing traditional ideas about hockey, violence and the role of the goon.
Co-Author’s Note: We get it. Our affinity for the sociology of sport makes it almost inevitable that what follows will be a critical take on the film’s representation of hockey violence. But, as fans of hockey that grew up on films like Slap Shot (1977), we can certainly appreciate both sport and film, especially when they are entertaining. And we will be the first to admit that there are particular scenes in Goon that made us laugh: a well-timed reference to Rudy (1993) is part of the sometimes charming romantic side plot that is the source of many of the film’s best moments – a lot of us can undoubtedly relate to Doug’s awkwardness and unrelenting politeness in pursuit of his love interest Eva (played by Allison Pill). Film veteran Liev Schreiber was especially good as Ross ‘The Boss’ Rhea, the aging, chain-smoking enforcer who imparts wisdom to Doug in some of Goon’s most memorable (and thoughtful) scenes. It took very little time for Marty (our resident Winnipegger) to recall that Goon was filmed in Winnipeg, leading him to spend most of his time identifying landmarks and reveling in the recurring role of Curt Keilback (longtime voice of the Jets). There is also a heartwarming infusion of Canadian content throughout the film including cameos by the Trailer Park Boys and a soundtrack featuring Canadian rock staples Chilliwack, Sloan and Rush (Matt couldn’t resist pumping his fist when “Working Man” blasted over the theatre’s sound system).
Cute Canadiana aside, we were ultimately disappointed with Goon. To begin, it must be pointed out that Jay Baruchel (who has been great in other films) is painfully annoying as Doug’s foul-mouthed friend Ryan. Perhaps not surprisingly the film is overflowing with several worn-out hockey stereotypes – the culturally-awkward Russians, the quirky goalie, the Asian teammate paying for med school, the washed-up, drunk and divorced veteran captain, and of course the goons. The film’s biggest drawback is epitomized in a scene that sets Doug’s career as a goon in motion. Doug attends a minor league “tryout” wearing a pair of white figure skates. His choice of equipment (and the fact that he can’t skate) provokes the expected verbal onslaught from the team’s players and whips Doug into a violent frenzy. He proceeds to systematically beat up several members of the team, impressing the coach and cementing his spot on the roster as the team’s goon. Under any other circumstances we might have walked out of the theatre at this point because, simply put, the scene is terrible. However, we settled into our seats as Doug settled into his role as a goon because we both thought this film says something powerful and ultimately problematic about hockey violence and the role of the goon.
Goon’s overarching message is that hockey’s unwritten code of conduct (or ‘Code of Honour,’ or simply ‘The Code’) is an essential aspect of the game and should be celebrated as such. This message is nothing new, of course. But, importantly, this message relies entirely on the tired and unsubstantiated idea that hockey players are just ‘nice guys.’ This, in turn, continues to reinforce dominant understandings of white men as ‘men of character.’
Goon’s tagline reads: “Meet Doug. The Nicest Guy You Will Ever Fight.” Doug’s unrelenting ‘niceness’ is made clear in several ways throughout the film: he says ‘thank you’ at an excessive rate; he is overly chivalrous; and he often apologizes to those on the receiving end of his fists. In an interview on CBC’s Q with Jian Ghomeshi, Ghomeshi asks Baruchel (also co-creator of Goon) how important it was to sell the paradox of a “brute who’s a kitten off the ice?” “It was paramount,” Baruchel responds, “the only way you’re going to get the audience to sort of connect…and maybe even see themselves in Doug is if he’s the most likeable, mild-mannered guy in the world. And in my experience the hardest guys in hockey are that.”
Goon does not work if Doug is a wild and angry man. He must be nice in order for us to understand that fighting is the right thing to do. To understand this point we can look closer at Doug’s “fall from grace” (the classic narrative hitch used to set up the film’s climax) when he loses control of his emotions and wildly beats an opponent to a bloody pulp. Skating off the ice covered in blood, Doug is visibly shaken by what he has just done. Dirty and shamed, he must be punished for straying from ‘The Code.’ He is made to sit at the back of the team’s bus (near the “piss hole”) and is suspended for one game (*Spoiler Alert* Doug finds redemption as he settles back into his role as a goon and fights Rhea. This one fight single-handedly sets the team straight and allows them to attain success).
Doug is able to cast aside potential challenges to hockey’s traditions because he is a nice guy, because he occupies the moral high ground. It was quite telling that, the day before we watched this film, a lot of media coverage was dedicated to Sidney Crosby’s potential return from his season-long “battle with concussion-like symptoms.” Within this context, the treatment of concussions in Goon makes powerful statements about the consequences for these types of injuries and their cultural significance. Not surprisingly, despite withstanding an unfathomable number of blows to the head, as well as a slap shot in the teeth, Doug is never shown to have a concussion and no mention is made of head trauma outside of his superficial injuries. In contrast to the hypermasculine enforcer, flamboyant French Canadian hot shot Xavier LaFlamme (played by Marc-Andre Grondin) sustains two concussions over the course of the season; in fact, Doug is signed by Halifax for the sole purpose of protecting the skittish LaFlamme and helping to ease the young sniper’s fears of getting another concussion.
The only explicit discussion of hockey’s concussion debate comes when Doug’s father (played by a severely underutilized Eugene Levy) asks the now popular goon if he has considered the risks of head injuries. This line of questioning from Doug’s father, an uptight, middle-class, Jewish doctor, leads Doug into an emotional speech extolling the virtues of ‘The Code’ and defending his legitimacy as a hockey player. With these passionate words, the potential for the concussion debate to emerge as a counter-narrative within the film is quickly dissolved. In the meantime, significant contrasts are drawn between Doug and his father/LaFlamme; where Doug’s mastery of hockey’s masculine code of honour allows him to stand on moral high ground, his father and LaFlamme must “learn The Code” to demonstrate that they truly understand the game (*Spoiler Alert* Only one of them is successful).
Doug’s speech to his family appeals largely to the inherent good that comes from his role as the team’s protector. These sentiments are echoed in a later scene that depicts a conversation between Doug and Ross Rhea. The exchange also serves as a possible disruption to the narrative’s momentum as the experienced Rhea warns Doug about the perils that come with being a goon. Rhea’s comments about the disposable nature of the enforcer and the goon’s fleeting status as fan favourite are eerily similar to many of the concerns raised as part of the fallout from the NHL’s ‘Summer of Sorrow.’ Once again, Doug is (politely) resolute in defending his role and invokes notions of pride and “team” in justifying his position. While Rhea brushes off Doug’s loyalty to his team with a sarcastic laugh, ‘The Code’ is gradually re-established as the conversation continues. Destined to fight in a future game, the scene ends with a sign of mutual respect between the two enforcers with an implicit understanding that this respect can only be rightly enacted in a violent fight on the ice.
Doug’s moral high ground thwarts yet another counter narrative to traditional hockey. Goon’s only gay character is Doug’s non-hockey playing brother Ira (played by Flashpoint’s David Paetkau). In an early and pivotal scene, Doug (still just a fan in the stands) beats up a hockey player who has uttered a gay slur in his direction. Using his fists, Doug makes it more than clear that explicit homophobia is wrong. Once he becomes a hockey player himself, however, Doug remains curiously quiet in the ultra-hetero space of the dressing room. It is business as usual here; hockey players hurl homophobic and sexist comments at each other. Yet, these comments are somehow understood in terms of camaraderie and team-building, and hockey’s culture of masculinity goes unchallenged.
Talking with Jian Ghomeshi, Jay Baruchel easily deflects anti-violence critiques aimed at Goon by (much like Doug does) extolling the taken-for-granted virtues of ‘The Code’ and those who enforce it. Despite this, we think that Goon is saying something powerful about the institution of hockey. By wittingly casting aside concerns over homophobia, concussions, and fighting, Goon does nothing more than reinforce the idea that goons are nice, honourable guys. Nice guys like Doug, after all, are incapable of bad things.