next to film noir i think that war and prison films are the most consistently compelling for me; and jarhead is no exception. sam mendes (american beauty) directs and roger deakins (fargo, shawshank redemption lends his (considerable) talent behind the camera. in fact, this film is almost more deakins’s than it is mendes’s. deakins is about as perfect a choice as you can get for this sort of film – his cinematography suffocates the viewer as the desert and oil fires suffocate the subjects within the film. his other credits are full of similarly themed films: 1984, fargo, shawshank redemption, dead man walking, siege, hurricane, village, and the house of sand and fog top the list. all of these films have themes of isolation and confinement.
jarhead isn’t just a film about isolation, it’s a film about growth and complexity; namely the growth and complexity of the protagonist, played by jake gyllenhaal. jarhead refers, essentially, to the idea that each new marine is an empty vessel waiting to be filled by (presumably) the indoctrination of the marine core. one aspect of the film that fell a bit short is related to this filling… in full metal jacket, the ultimate film about the marine core, there is a clear dialectic between the recruits and the sergeant. in this film, this binary opposition is less prevalent. foxx, who plays the staff sergeant, is more “one of the guys” than a hard nosed leader. the conflict, therefore, is more an internal one. sometimes this manifests itself with intersquad squabbling and other times it’s a man vs. himself situation. and even when the former is the case, it usually informs the latter. for example, when one of the other marines discovers one of his video tapes contains pornographic footage of his wife cheating on him, there is a minor squabble between sarsgaard and gyllenhaal (who wants to view the tape again). the real issue here isn’t their disagreement on whether to view the tape again or not, rather it is gyllenhaal’s own growing obsession with the possibility that his girlfriend is cheating on him. the first gulf war is the perfect setting for meting out this theme. because the only real significant american casualties came from “friendly fire” and the gulf war syndrome afterwards, it is a war that perfectly embodies the “man vs. himself” theme.
gyllenhaal does a very good job and will probably earn a golden globe or oscar nomination for his performance. sarsgaard is also dialed in very well. black (sling blade, friday night lights) is another up and comer. foxx does a good job, but i wasn’t really sure how to read his character. was that his acting, my interpretation or the writing? perhaps the best thing about the characterization was its complexity. gyllenhaal isn’t particularly easy to like. he’s capable and occasionally sensitive, but he can also be stupid, callous, abrasive, and irresponsible. in the end, we like him because he perseveres through it all. sarsgaard and gyllenhaal clap and applaud the beach storming sequence in apocalypse now, which is chilling, sad and pathetic. but they also have empathy when they see actual death later in the film. conversely, evan jones’ character (fowler) carries that same bravado throughout real and fictional war situations. as evan jones is one end of the spectrum and gyllenhaal and sarsgaard are the middle, brian geraghty (fergus) makes up the other end of the spectrum – he is the most sensitive of the group.
there were some stunning scenes in the film – the sequence with “something” by nirvana was a standout; the oil fires in the desert were great; gyllenhaal breaking, and then apologizing, was great; and the post-airstrike scenes were also memorable. all in all, it’s a very good film that’s a strange combination of the lyricism of “a walk in the sun” and the brutality of “full metal jacket,” though it’s not as good as either. i felt that sarsgaard’s death at the end was more obligatory than it was symbolic or poetic. not as good as north country, better than the island, but not as enjoyable. the tight, efficient storytelling made it feel more epic than the run time would indicate.Watched in theater