What would you do if you had the power to kill a goat just by staring at it? For that matter, what if you could disperse clouds with a single though, see the future, or even remote view someone halfway around the world? In 2004 a non-fiction book entitled The Men Who Stare at Goats was released with all of those things in mind. Written by Jon Ronson, and researched by both he and John Sergeant, the book is an examination of paranormal military programs used by the United States. Goats quickly became a bestseller and just last year a movie adaptation was released.
Rather than be a serious affair that follows the events of the book to the letter, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a comedy that tackles the material with a straight face. The humor is deadpan, the film breaks the fourth wall at times (Ewan McGregor talking at length about being a Jedi), and in many ways it's about as peculiar as any movie we've seen in recent memory. Directed by Grant Heslov, The Men Who Stare at Goats tells you that "more of this is true than you would believe" and for the most part that's an accurate statement.
The film follows the life of Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who is a down on his luck reporter for the Ann Arbor Daily Telegram. Bob gets the feeling that his life is empty and that really hits home when his wife leaves him for another man. Lost in life Bob finds himself in Iraq hoping to report on the war and do something that will give his life meaning. His luck changes completely when he meets a man named Lyn Cassady (George Clooney).
Lyn is an undercover Special Forcers operative on a secret mission in Iraq, but more importantly he's something of unique soldier. Lyn frequently calls himself a Jedi Warrior and talks about being a member of something called the New Earth Army. Reluctantly Lyn takes Bob with him across the border and recants how he was part of a special American unit that trained psychic spies. Invisibility, remote viewing, cloud bursting, intuition, and walking through walls are just a few of the skills Lyn was working on back in the day before being reactivated.
As the story progresses Bob gets fed more information about the New Earth Army, and though it seems ridiculous, he wants to believe. As Lyn talks about his training we're introduced to Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), who started the unit and was the first to develop many of these psychic abilities. We also meet Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) who quickly became Lyn's rival. The Men Who Stare at Goats even tongue in cheek refers to Larry as being a Jedi involved in the "dark side". With the main characters introduced the film moves into its second act with purpose and it really takes viewers along for the ride with Bob.
It should be said that The Men Who Stare at Goats is incredibly fun to watch. The unique atmosphere involving Star Wars references and talk about psychic soldiers blends strangely with the comedy elements. Some moments in this film are laugh out loud funny, while others just aren't quite as successful. Clooney obviously had a great time as Lyn, Ewan plays Bob perfectly, and with support from Bridges and Spacey the film feels well-rounded. The problem with Goats isn't in the deadpan humor or acting, but rather that it leaves one hoping for more.
I found myself on the edge of my seat hoping to see Lyn use some Jedi mind-trick or kill a bad guy with a thought, but sadly that never materialized. In that sense Goats felt grounded in reality, though the fantastical elements always teetered on the edge of possibility. It was a tease in a sense, and slow pacing added to that sensation. Another problem with the film is a lack of balance as it makes its way to the finish line. As ridiculous as the concept of the movie may seem, the ending feels slapped together crudely with a serious tone, almost as though it were an afterthought. It's a stumble that disappoints on some level, but it's not nearly enough to detract from the experience completely.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is a unique comedy based on some fascinating material. While it doesn't completely follow items in Ronson's book to the letter, it does offer up a compelling story that will make you want to believe. In that sense the film is an astounding success and it leaves a very strong impression. It's just a shame that some of the humor is hit or miss and the film's second act just isn't as good as it could have been. Overall The Men Who Stare at Goats comes highly recommended and it's very entertaining, but keep in mind that it has its flaws.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is presented on Blu-ray with its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The film comes on a BD-50 dual-layered disc with full 1080p resolution and AVC MPEG-4 encoding.
The transfer for this release is quite sharp with several feathers in its cap. For starters the colors are vibrant throughout and contrast that never skips a beat no matter where the film finds itself (inside a dimly lit room or in the scorching sun of the desert). Black levels are superb with quite a bit of depth and throughout this film the picture offers up some stunning, sharp detail. From beads of sweat to grains of sand and clothing textures, there are so many things that stand out within this transfer. With that being said there is grit here that creates noise in some scenes, but it's relatively minor and never distracting. Overall the transfer for Goats is solid.
This release of The Men Who Stare at Goats comes with Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 at 48 khz and 3.5 Mbps as its main source of audio. The film offers some crisp, clean sound with solid LFE, and an overall smart presence on the soundstage. Dialogue, effects, and music are mostly front-centric, but some channel separation is present in the form of atmospheric noise and use of the rear channels at key points. The sense of immersion is quite strong at times, but for the most part the film feels somewhat subdued. This is, after all, a comedy and its mostly dialogue driven so use of the channels isn't as strong as in other pieces. The quality is still great, however, and it's a pleasing presentation. Optional English (and Spanish) subtitles are included.
A healthy dose of bonus content appears on this release. On the lighter side of things there's a Digital Copy of the film on a second disc (it's worth noting that my copy did not come with an activation code of any kind, so I couldn't test it out). Some previews for other Starz/Anchor Bay films are included, as well as a trailer for Goats and some character bios.
Two audio commentaries are included for Goats. One features Director Grant Heslov and the other is provided by Author Jon Ronson. The commentary with Heslov is the more technical of the two with a focus on the film and elements of its production. Ronson's piece provides more connections to his book and helps fill in some of the blanks with regards to abilities and what was actually going on during his research. Four minutes worth of deleted scenes are included as well with varying degrees of quality.
A pair of featurettes makes their way onto this disc as well. "Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion" (12:29) is a feature that looks at some of the information found in Ronson's book. The author is present for an interview and talks about some comparisons between the two projects. "Project Hollywood: A Classified Report from the Set" (7:34) pulls the cast members together to talk about the film. It's more of a promotional piece than anything else, but there are some nice moments in the conversation.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is an unconventional film about a surreal topic that's brought to life by an imaginative script, sharp dialogue, and spot-on acting. It's a blast to watch and the twisted sense of humor catches you off guard more often than not. Goats has the makings of a cult classic and it's a movie that's re-watchable time and time again. Despite all the positive aspects to the film, the quality slips a little towards the end and at some point it feels as though it loses direction. It doesn't ruin the experience, but it certainly grounds it somehow.
The quality of this Blu-ray release is solid all around. The video quality is sharp and detailed, the audio is clean, crisp, and presented nicely, and the extra features are definitely worth digging through once you finish watching the film. Overall this Blu-ray release of The Men Who Stare at Goats comes highly recommended.