Men Who Stare At Goats is an odd film: its plot has a definite beginning and middle but strangely, no climax. It begins in a special 1980s US military unit that is trying to harness the psychic powers of its men to change the dynamics of war. It was goofy as hell but it definitely worked, we are told. The film’s middle lies in the encounter of journalist McGregor and a former psychic warrior Clooney in Iraq sometime in early 2000s: Clooney is on a secret mission, and McGregor is hoping to find a story. Only there is no special mission, no story, and Clooney's psychic powers are never put to any real use.
At the end of the film, Sid and I were left wondering what the hell was it all about. Why did the director tell us so definitely that the psychic powers were for real: that the “Jedi warriors” may seem comic but they could indeed travel through time and space, and kill goats by staring at them? It left us feeling that something serious lurked behind all the jokes. But why were we made to care about the psychic powers, if they amounted to nothing in the larger plot? If they had left the reality of the psychic powers ambiguous, we could have accepted the film as simply absurdist, and enjoyed it for what it was.
The fault, I think, lies in the adaptation of the book to the film.
The author of the book on which the film was based, Jon Ronson, said in a Q&A that followed the screening of the film that his novel turned dark in the second half. The characters of Clooney and McGregor found psychic powers being used to torture prisoners in Iraq, and the plot surrounded their dismantling the programme. But the moviemakers felt that too many dark films had been made recently on the Iraq War, and they wanted to keep to the funny side of things, explained Ronson.
Obviously, in the process of filtering out the darkness from the second half of the plot, the filmmakers failed to examine if the plot still functioned as a whole. Their failure highlights how novels, films, poems, art constitute bodies of work, where each decision regarding language, style, tone, words, colour is meant to provide continuity and progression. You cannot tinker with one aspect and leave the rest unchanged.
In other words, you can make men stare at goats but you better make sure it means something as a whole.
Ron Johnson talked about his book and the film at Screen on the Green theatre in Islington on Nov 6, 2009.
* Watch the trailor (which by the way has the funniest bits of the film): http://www.themenwhostareatgoatsmovie.com/#home
* Screen on the Green often holds Q&A with filmmakers. Next on its agenda is Q&A live via satellite with director Richard Linklater and stars Christian McKay, Claire Danes and Zac Efron of the film Me & Orson Welles.