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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Men Who Stare at Goats (review)

Man? Or Goat?

I’m not sure if I’ve seen a more sublimely funny moment on screen this year than the one in which George Clooney, in all deep serious earnestness, tries to convince Ewan McGregor that he — McGregor, that is — is a Jedi warrior.

“What is a Jedi warrior?” McGregor had asked earlier, when Clooney, in all deep serious earnestness, insisted that he — Clooney, that is — was one.
Now, it’s a safe assumption that McGregor’s (Amelia, Angels & Demons) journalist, Bob Wilton, knows what a fictional Jedi warrior is, and not just because McGregor has previously portrayed one of the ultimate examples of the breed, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Because as the film opens, as Bob — from his far-more-knowledgeable perch in his future — introduces us to himself and his miserable life in Middle America circa 2002, as he introduces some of the concepts that he will be relating to us over the course of the ensuing 90 minutes of cheeky, baffled madness, he likens himself to Luke Skywalker or Bilbo Baggins, an unassuming everyman about to embark upon a journey that will change his life and expand his horizons forever.

But Bob is now dealing with Clooney’s (Burn After Reading, Michael Clayton) wonderfully batshit looney (or is he?) Lyn Cassady, a former (or is he?) U.S. Army operative who was trained (or was he?) in the craziest-ass shit you’ve ever heard of: psychic warfare. Spying on the Russkies via out-of-body experiences. Killing opponent warriors — or goats, for practice; or, in one funny and poignant bit, hamsters — by, you know, staring at them. It’s completely insane, except there are reports that this kind of thing really did go on during the Cold War (it’s sorta Catch 22 meets Ghostbusters, or Dr. Venkman meets Dr. Strangelove in the War Room). Which would, if true, leave veterans of such a program running around looking to get into trouble today, in the midst of Gulf War II, when Bob first encounters Lyn after he — Bob, that is — runs away from his miserable life in Middle America hoping to find solace and redemption in being a manly war correspondent in Iraq.

“More of this is true than you would believe,” insists the placard that opens The Men Who Stare at Goats, and maybe that’s true. Or maybe it’s just a put-on of a different but similar order to, say, The Fourth Kind also opening this weekend. And while it’s questionable whether the hippie-dippy “New Earth Army” actually exists — as Lyn relates its history, from Vietnam to the present day, to Bob as they drive around the deserts of Kuwait in 2003 looking for a way into Iraq as the macho imperialistic Western invasion gets underway in earnest — there is no doubt that the yearning and the questioning and the skepticism it all encapsulates about modern masculinity is achingly authentic. Even if it is presented via a smartly low-key and howlingly hilarious perspective…

“We have to dream a new America,” Lyn’s commanding officer, Jeff Bridges’ (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Iron Man) Bill Django, explains to Lyn and other recruits in the post-Vietnam era, as he — Bill, that is — begins a program within the Army, back in the 1970s, to create “warrior monks” who strive for peace through positive thinking, embracing Mother Earth, and profoundly beating the shit out of bad guys who nevertheless happen to get in their way. This all happens in flashbacks, as Bob relates it to us as Lyn has, supposedly, related it to him, and the uncertainty as to the truth of any of it becomes a sort of underscore to Bob’s uncertainty about what his life is about. He left Ann Arbor to escape a broken marriage — when we first meet him, he is actually in tears over his heartbreak, which is a more vulnerable and open position than we’re used to seeing men onscreen being in. But has he found anything better in Lyn’s vision of do-goodery? Is the new America waiting to be discovered by men who feel rather than act? Are real men warriors, or are only Jedi warriors real men? Or are men who believe themselves to be Jedi warriors just crazy?

Do real, sane men, in other words, stare at goats?

Director Grant Heslov (a member of Clooney’s posse; he was a cowriter and producer on Good Night, and Good Luck.) and screenwriter Peter Straughan (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People) — adapting the book of the same name by Jon Ronson [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] — are as much at a loss as Bob to figure out what modern manhood is. (Lyn seems pretty confident in his masculinity, though he’s such a cocky bastard that it’s hard to know what he really thinks.) That’s fine. The mission isn’t the answer. The mission is the question.


MPAA: rated R for language, some drug content and brief nudity

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • CB

    I’m so going to see this movie.

  • There is something you need to know.

    About goats.

    That get stared at.

    They stare back.

    Soon, there will be Goats Who Stare At Men.

    And the War for Earth will begin in earnest.

  • Gia

    That’s it, MaryAnn. You’ve convinced me.

  • Kate

    Well, I’m not sure what to make of this movie. Clooney is good, as always, and I love watching Jeff Bridges, and the sheer quirkiness of the subject matter is worth the price of a matinee ticket . . . I guess. But this film is really nothing more than a collection of zany vignettes that may or may not have a foundation in truth. There are some funny scenes, and I laughed a few times, and overall it was entertaining. But there’s no plot, no real story at all, and the tone reminds me of “Election” (narrated by a schlep who wants to be a man but can’t quite figure out how to make it happen), but without the sharp edges (which made “Election” work). What’s interesting about the premise is that the US Military actually had people investigating psychic powers; unfortunately, the film doesn’t really care about that at all. All the “goat-staring” and “hamster-staring” (and we’re talking two scenes here, barely 90 seconds total) are just for effect – and for the title. It’s really a movie about a couple of burned-out hippie leftovers who use psychedelic drugs to free their metaphoric inner children. This is supposed to be inspirational in some way, I think. It’s clearly inspirational for Ewan McGregor’s character, who achieves spiritual Nirvana in an ending that may or may not have been meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

    MaryAnn, I don’t know . . . you clearly saw more in this film than I did. If it’s a film about manhood, it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say. I like this line in your review: “Do real, sane men, in other words, stare at goats?” That’s a good question, and one this film is not interested in answering. This is a movie that could have been fascinating and intriguing and thought-provoking (and funny, too). Instead, it’s sort of like that “funny and poignant” hamster bit – it just doesn’t quite do it.

  • There is something you need to know.

    About goats.

    That get stared at.

    They stare back.

    Soon, there will be Goats Who Stare At Men.

    And the War for Earth will begin in earnest.

    Heh.

    In other words, the more you look into the goat, the more the goat looks into you.

    Now I’m starting to have this weird craving for cabrito…

  • MaryAnn

    I like this line in your review: “Do real, sane men, in other words, stare at goats?” That’s a good question, and one this film is not interested in answering.

    But I think the film is not interested in answering the question about what make a “real man” these days — and what’s more, I think the point of the film is that *no one* knows what makes a “real man” these days. The point is, it’s all in flux, and maybe there’s no answer to such a question anymore.

  • JoshDM

    I hear it placed THIRD this weekend. Boo.

  • Kate

    Well, MaryAnn, what is this film ABOUT, then? If it’s not about what manhood is (and I agree, it doesn’t answer that question), and it’s not about what sanity is (it doesn’t answer that one, either), then what is it doing? It’s quirky, sure, but is that enough? You suggest that the point is, “It’s all in flux,and maybe there’s no answer to such a question anymore.” I suspect the film isn’t really posing a question, so it doesn’t really matter if there’s an answer. It just wants to be head-scratchingly obscure, like a Rubic’s Cube without a solution.

    I liked the first 45 minutes or so, but I expected (and wanted) more. There’s something pretentious about a film that seems to wink at you, as if to say “I’m too ‘deep’ for most people to grasp.” It’s as if it’s suggesting that only the truly enlightened among us will recognize the true brilliance that escapes everyone else. But maybe the Emperor is just naked!

  • MaryAnn

    Well, MaryAnn, what is this film ABOUT, then? If it’s not about what manhood is (and I agree, it doesn’t answer that question),

    Can’t it be about *asking* the question?

  • LaSargenta

    I haven’t seen the movie yet. I almost saw it on Friday with my son, but he was not in the mood: “You’re not going to make me watch another grown-up movie again, are you?!” That was said simply after I suggested we look at the trailer (and after I explained it was yet another movie rated R that I thought he might actually like). Imagine my eyes rolling.

    Anyhow…

    Not directed at Kate, but just a question to this whole site…or maybe to everyone who watches movies. Why does it have to be about anything? Is life about anything? Sometimes life and even stories about life are just a string of shaggy-dog stories. Is that bad?

    I’m quite fond of shaggy-dog stories, myself.

  • CB

    Can’t it be about *asking* the question?

    Indeed it can, and in fact it’s in the *asking* that insight occurs. “What is manhood?” is like “What is the meaning of life?” — it’s not a question you actually answer, because any answer is almost necessarily to tight and limited or too broad and useless — which can be seen any time someone does try to answer what one of these mysteries of existence. It’s in the exploration of the question itself that meaning is found.

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