In his review of the film's theatrical release at Past the Popcorn, Jeff Walls summarized its greatest strength thusly: "Great marketing, though." It's high-concept Hollywood puffery at its finest: an absurdist buddy picture like Arkin and Grodin in The In-Laws, plus goofy gags about New Age mind-power and timely jabs at the war in Iraq. Oh, and did we mention George Clooney, plus Ewan McGregor as a modern-day Jedi Knight in training? What a hoot, yes?
Well, no. And most reviewers have pretty much covered that assessment. Audiences appear to have disagreed. So I won't belabor the point.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is an adaptation of the Jon Ronson book by the same name, and delves into the world of psychic military regiments during the Iraq War.
I also won't bore you by going on an on about how disappointing the DVD's "special features" are. Suffice to say that the "real" story, while bearing a passing resemblance to the film that Grant Heslov directed, is no more entertaining than the feature presentation.
No Scoffing at Bona Fide Metaphysical Experiences
What's perhaps most interesting about this fictionalized tale of a real-life military unit that experimentally attempted to harness New Agey, hippie-inspired, and drug-fueled expanded consciousness to peacefully neutralize enemies is that it doesn't poke fun at the idea that there's a legitimate difference between fighting for your country and killing for your country. It also doesn't entirely scoff at the idea of bona fide metaphysical experiences.
Throughout the film, Clooney (as Lyn Cassady) makes it clear that certain members of the unit had very real, demonstrable (if consistently over-estimated) powers—and that certain members just didn't. Rivalries are even set up within the unit between the real McCoys and the pretenders to the throne.
The key point of betrayal comes when Cassady is persuaded to demonstrate his power by staring at a goat until it drops dead. To that point, Cassady had been convinced that his powers had only been used for good.
Significantly, neither Cassady, McGregor (as the film's narrator Bob Wilton), nor the film itself seems to question the legitimacy of the event. At the film's conclusion, in fact, Wilton seems to have not only entirely bought into his conversion to Jedi Knight—he appears to have even transcended his mentor's powers.
Now, there's nothing very deep about that, and I won't try to draw out some profound spiritual lesson—because I'm quite sure none is intended. But in an era when religion has become an easy target for cheap laughs, well... I guess I'm happy for a measure of respect on the film's part. But in this case, I think I really would have just enjoyed more comedy.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is rated R for language, some drug content and brief nudity. I agree with Jeff that this is not "hard-R" material at all. Much milder than many of the GP-rated films I saw as a pre-teen. But then the late '60s and early '70s were pretty permissive.
Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of The Men Who Stare at Goats.
Greg Wright is Managing Editor of both Past the Popcorn and Hollywood Jesus. An ordained pastor, Greg is the author of Tolkien In Perspective: Sifting the Gold from the Glitter (2003) and Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004). A widely-known lecturer on Tolkien, Lewis, film, and fantasy, Greg resides in the Seattle area with his precious wife Jenn and their two cats, Grynne and Bearrett.