Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Pete Sarsgaard.
United International Pictures.
13 January, 2006.
Anthony Swofford (Gyllenhaal) joins the United States Marine Corps just in time to become embroiled in the Gulf War. The film follows him from boot camp to active duty, under the traditional lifer Staff Sergeant Sykes (Foxx). Now that synopsis bollocks is out of the way, I can get on with the review.
"Hijacking a plane and going to Jamaica was a great idea. Fuck Saddam."
Mendes' films are usually good looking affairs (American Beauty, Road to Perdition), and Jarhead is no exception. Early on, the film is a fairly unremarkable piece, environments limited to the barracks and other dour military environs, with small exterior scenes hinting at what is to follow. But when things move to the Middle East, it changes into a window on a glaringly hot burned-pale landscape, easily some of the best cinematic desert scenes I have ever cast mine eye upon. Unrelentingly bright, you could get a decent tan just watching this film a few times. When the film takes us to a burning oil well, with the air and ground covered in drifting veils of thick black sludge, illuminated by the rosy orange glow of Kuwaiti crude going up in smoke, it's unforgettable imagery. The film is a lot dirtier than the antiseptic images we got of the real war, and it's not shy about showing the civilian casualties and fuck ups that happened.
"Boy, get rid of that erection or the ragheads will blow it off!"
The sound couldn't match the visuals, but it is good enough for the job. There's some nice choices (especially 'Don't Worry, Be Happy' for the beginning of the film) and the effects are a step up from most films. Explosions in particular are very well done, and gunshots aren't too shabby either. Mendes obviously knows how to use silence to good effect (something a lot of film makers see as a void to be filled, rather than another technique to be used) and although I hate voiceovers (usually it's just plain lazy film making) they are used to good effect here, with Swoff narrating bits and pieces that give us a little more depth. They sometimes go on too long, but never really interrupt the flow of the film.
"You can't draft Santa's elves!"
Gyllenhaal turns in a good performance as Swoff, though he fails to come across as being as unashamedly macho (and homoerotic) as the rest of his squad. This is probably for the best, as the film is really not an anti-American or anti-war piece, it simply doesn't have that wide a scope. It's about one man and his struggle to cope with a life he's not ready for, fighting in a war for a cause he's unsure of. Swoff seems dangerous, but more due to being slightly unstable than a trained killing machine thirsty for human blood. Foxx has found it within himself to act lately, and although this doesn't match up to his performances in Ray or Collateral, it's still a competent job. A slightly dim, leather-tough institutionalised sergeant that manages to avoid most of the cliches sergeants in war films get stuck with. Sarsgaard, as Swoff's bestest buddy Troy, plays a calm, quiet composed sort of bloke. Like Swoff, he's a man apart from the usual idiots and their idiocy, and like Swoff he's not the best at dealing with the ever-rising tensions (both sexual and violent) that accompany war.
"Are we still shooting people? Because I just did."
Mendes doesn't dwell on the training side of things, he knows people are busy making connections to Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and he knows he can't compete. At the Gulf, things fail to happen in short order and the film becomes a study in the hyped-up melancholy that precedes battle, a seemingly endless parade of training, propaganda, boredom and bullshit. It's a war film without any war, without any battles except internal ones. There's a certain vacuous feeling to the whole film, but I think that was the point. It doesn't address any of the political shite, it doesn't really have an anti-war stance, it's just about the people in the war, rather than the war itself. Akin to the Deer Hunter, or Full Metal Jacket, and it stands alongside both of those in terms of quality, though it tells a very different story.