“More of this is true than you would believe.”
What was intended as a somewhat thought-provoking quirky comedy looks a lot like something you would expect to see on a late night rerun of The X-Files. All of the subject matter has been covered there, just not quite in this way. It all started with a non-fiction book written by Jon Ronson. He claimed to have researched various government studies in human behavior that entered into the world of the paranormal. It was part of an ideology of waging non-lethal war. It was a strange combination of 1980’s new age mysticism and actual studies that showed that soldiers in World War II were, in fact, quite reluctant to kill or even harm the enemy. The study claimed that almost 80% of the soldiers deliberately looked for excuses not to fire or merely aimed inaccurately to avoid killing. The study went further and claimed that of the minority that did shoot with deadly results, most of them suffered terrible guilt over the experience, often making them unable to remain effective soldiers. The study regards the remainder of the study group, the ones who did fire accurately and did not suffer guilt as psychopaths. In short, the book gathered a lot of speculative ideas and put them into a rather oddball collection of “facts”.
“The real story of my life began a few years back when my editor sent me to interview a local guy he’d heard on a talk radio show. The guy claimed to have some kind of psychic powers. That he could travel with just his mind anywhere he wanted. He called it remote viewing.”
Our story focuses on reporter Bob Wilton (McGregor) who interviews a man who claims to be a product of some interesting but wacky-sounding government experiments. He just writes the guy off as crazy and goes on with his life. That is, until his wife leaves him for his editor. He does what any brokenhearted young man might do, or so he tells us. It’s 2003 and the beginning of the Gulf War, so he decides to go to the battlefields and become an imbedded war correspondent. Once in the Middle East, he encounters Lyn Cassady (Clooney). It turns out that Cassady knew Gus, Wilton’s local “quack” and claims to have been a part of the same programs from their inception. He claims to be a polished product of the project.
“Gus told me that back in the 80’s he was a part of a top secret unit that got their training in the Army in a program sanctioned by the highest levels of the government. When I asked him what the purpose of this unit was, he said, ‘We were psychic spies mainly. That was our initial tasking. Once they realized what they were sitting on, we were trained to kill animals just by staring at them.’”
It was called “Project Jedi”. It all began when the project’s founder, Bill DJango (Bridges) fell out of a helicopter in Vietnam in 1972. He noticed the above described phenomenon of American soldiers trying not to kill anyone. Unfortunately for Bill, the enemy didn’t seem to suffer from such pangs of guilt, and Bill takes one in the chest. Just before he passes out, he has a wonderful vision. The next thing he knows he’s at an Army hospital recovering from his bullet wound. After his tour of duty ended, Bill disappeared into the trendy New Age Movement. He was looking for a way to tap that reluctance to kill and create a different kind of soldier who used his mind instead of weapons. He ended up writing the book that the military based their “Jedi Project” on. Cassady fills Wilton in on the evolution of the project and the three major players. In turn Wilton tells us the story in his own journalist voice. Through the narrative and flashbacks we meet Bill and Cassady in the early days of the program. To say that their soldier training techniques were unorthodox is putting it mildly. There’s dance steps and the use of amphetamines, “not to be abused, but to be handy”. The unit was trying to develop such mental skills as remote viewing, invisibility, phasing (the ability to pass through solid objects) and then there’s the goat lab, where the film gets its title. There Cassady developed the power to stop a goat’s heart by merely staring at it. The Jedi Project continues on its bizarre training methods in an attempt to create a “Super Soldier”.
It all falls apart when Jedi recruit Larry Hooper (Spacey) joins the group. He gets into a personality conflict with Cassady and undermines him at every opportunity. It leads to the end of the project and a curse on Cassady when Hooper delivers a death touch. Cassady believes the touch will kill him, because he’s seen it work before. A man died after being given the same death touch. Of course, it was 18 years later, but “You never know just how long it’s going to take”.
Cassady is relating these events to Wilton as the two make their way across the desert on some kind of secret black ops mission that Cassady claims to be on. He was given his orders in a vision by Bill. Along the way the two experience a series of both fortunate and unfortunate events that would shame even Inspector Clouseau or Lemony Snicket.
This is likely one of the most quirky films I’ve ever seen, at least of the ones that actually worked on some level. If you’re looking for a logical story that leads to some kind of resolution or satisfying conclusion, you might want to skip this one. There isn’t anything logical about this film at all. It’s such a mangled mess of circumstances and completely over the top events that it really does stretch one’s imagination to the limit. But the film does indeed work, and there really is only one reason why it does. It doesn’t have anything to do with the story or the direction or even the photography. The secret is in the cast. All of the actors play their parts completely straight. The circumstances are constantly over the top, but each of the portrayals is on an even keel that is so counter to the surroundings that it is the glue that makes any of this work. We’ve seen George Clooney do this kind of thing before. There’s a reason why he is a favorite actor of the Coen Brothers, and this plays out very much in their style, something the box art and buzz take full advantage of here. In the flashback episodes we get to see a younger looking hippie Clooney who looks uncannily like George Harrison in his Beatles years. He’s completely serious no matter how ridiculous his lines might be. It’s perfectly played. Any temptation to wink at the audience here, and the entire film falls apart faster than you can blink. Ewan McGregor is also quite brilliant here. He represents the audience in this movie and serves as our eyes and ears during the entire ordeal. It’s also a bit of an amusing touch that the project is named for the Jedi Knights in the Star Wars films where McGregor played the Jedi Master young Obi Wan in the prequel films. It’s golden to watch his quizzical face as he inquires, “What’s a Jedi Knight”. Jeff Bridges plays the often wasted founder of the whole movement, Bill DJango. Finally Spacey is considerably underused but takes full advantage. The four share enormous chemistry and make this mess of a film a whole lot of fun.
Men Who Stare At Goats is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average 30 mbps. Colors might not really stand out here, but this isn’t what you’d call a colorful film. The colors are mostly quite drab, but they are spot-on realistic in all respects. There is a notable exception where color is temporarily stunning. The Vietnam flashback features a wide jungle vista that is as luscious in its green as it is stunning in its beauty. The film looks a bit soft in some areas, but the rest of the image is quite sharp. It’s in the small details that the image shines. Whether it’s sweat on the character faces during tight close-ups or the grains of sand in the extensive desert scenes, the level of detail is pretty impressive. Black levels are inky perfect with tons of shadow definition. The lighting is sometimes rather oddball, but I suspect it was a stylish choice and accurately reproduced here. The print is in pristine condition.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 does the trick here. It’s a lot of dialog, and that comes through perfectly. The rest of the presentation is pretty average overall. Even the score appears to dominate the front of the mix, and you won’t find much of ambient sounds or effects in this audio presentation. Your subs will breathe just a tiny bit from time to time, but you really won’t be blown away by the sound.
There are two Audio Commentaries to be found here. The first features director Grant Heslov and is pretty much a play by play of the shots and set-ups. It’s mostly technical and a bit dry. Unfortunately, the second with original book author Jon Ronson is even drier. He appears to whisper most of the time, and the track is pretty much self reflective. I didn’t find any of these tracks worth the extra time.
All of the features appear to be in an MPEG-2 HD image presentation.
Goats Declassified – The Real Men Of The First Earth Battalion: (12:29) We’re told from the jump that Jon Ronson told the truth in his book, “from his perspective” is the qualifier here. Retired military guys talk about some of the non-lethal methods explored by the Army in years gone by. There’s a lot of talk of the “New Age” influence on some of the programs. Apparently a guy once did kill a goat by staring at it. Who’d have thunk it?
Project Hollywood – A Classified Report From The Set: (7:34) Cast and crew talk about the weird concepts from the movie and speculate a little themselves. It’s mostly a lot of character profiles and the usual sound bites.
Character Bios (4:46) Not sure how this is a “Character Bio”. It’s a trailer pure and simple.
Deleted Scenes: (4:14) 4 scenes with no play all option. The first is merely a music montage, and the rest are short scene extension bits.
You’ve got to be willing to just go with it in order to enjoy the movie at all. It did not do well at the box office, earning a paltry $32 million, and over one third of that came in just the first week. That tells me that the word of mouth just killed the film. The interesting part about it is that the movie wasn’t made for the theaters. This is a movie that I don’t think I would have enjoyed at all in a room full of 300 strangers. The content is just so weird that I suspect audience members got a bit self-conscious. This is a movie best enjoyed at home, friends optional but recommended. Even if you hated it at the movies, rent it with some friends and give it another try. You thought it sucked then. You figure it’ll suck now. “But you’d be wrong.”