Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats is … is …. Wow. It is hard to really spin together a couple hundred decent words about this movie. Well, let’s start with the obvious – the movie (as one would expect with a title like THAT) is not boring. The movie takes a premise that seems absurd (although not that absurd if you think about the nature of warfare and the constant search for an edge), plays it completely straight, and sort of sits there, looks at us and says “So?”. I am not sure what the point is – or if it is mocking the notion of a point in some sort of American neo-surrealist sort of way. It’s something else.
The movie opens with Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor, in a truly irritating performance), a down on his luck Ann Arbor local newspaper reporter. He has just interviewed a guy (the invaluable Stephen Root) who claims that he is part of a group that can stop animal hearts with their minds, assumes that the guy is insane, and then comes home to his wife leaving him. So, like many down on his luck types, McGregor decides to go to Iraq to try to find a story that can jumpstart his career and his life.
In Kuwait, while waiting for a plum assignment, he runs into a man posing as a contractor named Lynn Cassidy (Clooney) – whom the guy Bob interviewed in Ann Arbor said was a legend in the psychic field. Soon thereafter, through a series of events that seems futile to describe, Wilton follows Cassidy on what Cassidy confides is a “covert mission”. During this trek – which takes place in some beautifully photographed desert – the movie flashes back to the origins of the DoD’s “New Earth” effort, which tried to imbue the soldiers with super powers.
In the flashback, which is really the best part of the movie, we are introduced to Bill Django, a Big Lebowski-esque hippie Vietnam veteran (and if you want a Big Lebowski-esque guy, why not cast Jeff Bridges, the genuine article) who has come home to study alternative techniques for combat. After years of New Age experience, he comes back to Fort Bragg with his paradigm, which leads to some of the funniest passages in the movie, with Cassidy and his cohorts learning about chakras and letting go through various means Django recommends (and one I would not want to spoil). The flashback also covers the dynamics of the class – the rise of Cassidy and the rivalry between Lynn and Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who is a bit more straight laced Major Burns-y.
In the present day, Cassidy confides a vision, where Django, who left the service in disgrace (once again, for reasons too complicated to recap) came to him – the genesis of his quest. While this goes on, the movie sags, especially with the McGregor character whining and bemoaning their fate with a shrill quality that would make the throwaway screaming female in many a thriller envious. When the characters reunite (as they must) – the climax and resolution seem arbitrary and a little nonsensical – as if Heslov sort of ran out of ideas. There are some Three Kings sorts of throwaway comments about the current war in Iraq – but this movie is hardly a political essay.
Really what is left is sort of a weird cornucopia of movie stuff. It is continuously watchable, hard to predict … but also hard to really interpret. The group I watched the movie with was uniformly puzzled – but there was laughter. It’s a funny, inpenetrable something or other.