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Vince Court Marshall's Jarhead!

Published November 6, 2005 in Movie Reviews
By Vince Palomarez | Images property of Universal Pictures
Jarhead Movie Poster Jarhead
Has there ever been a time when you put so much effort and work into something, hoping for that big payoff, only to be totally disappointed when that big payoff turns out to be nothing? If you have then you'll understand what I felt after sitting through director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) latest film, Jarhead.

Jarhead Movie Review

Based on the former marine Anthony Swofford's best selling book, Jarhead follows Swofford's experiences from rebel slacker in boot camp through his time spent as an elite sniper during the Gulf War. It's hard to look at this film and not think of Full Metal Jacket. Both films share similar stereotyped characters (the loud mouth drill sergeant, the innocent boy hardened by the effects of war), which shouldn't be a knock against Jarhead. These types of films have been done way too often for there not to be similarities between them. I'm pretty sure Sam Mendes realized this because while Full Metal Jacket has a very serious feel to it, Jarhead revels in dark humor. This film is by no means an all out comedy, but there are situations in this film that you can't help but laugh at and that is one of Jarhead's biggest strengths.

One thing that has always amazed me about Sam Mendes is that he has stayed away from giving his films a signature look and feel. From the clean colorful filled world of America Beauty, to the dark brooding world of Road to Perdition, each film has its own unique look and feel and Jarhead is no different. Shot in the deserts of California, Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, A Beautiful Mind) use the desert landscape to create a barren landscape that makes each characters experience a very lonely one. The sand is always blowing and the scenery is very dull and distant which is important to having a sense of what the characters were experiencing and the factors that lead to their eventual meltdowns. Also, by giving Jarhead the look and feel of watching a documentary, the characters and situations feel real.

Jarhead Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead
By trying to give Jarhead a documentary type feel, the individuality of the characters is lost and we're left with nothing but a one dimensional stereotype of soldiers we see time and time again in these types of films. Mendes and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. (Cast Away, Apollo 13) fail to make us care about any of these characters because we know nothing about them other than their stereotypes (the loud mouth Texan, the crazy guy, the hard nose staff sergeant, the scared geek, the lifetime soldier). Odds are this was done intentionally to create some type of "symbolism" to show that this could be any soldier in the Marines, which is a neat idea, but audiences need to find some connection with the characters. Even the main character Swoff (Gyllenhaal) is given next to no back-story (other than a short series of exposition that reveals very little) and because of that he comes off as a very unlikable character at times, which kills the audiences emotional attachment to the story.

One of the strengths of the book was Swofford's sarcastic take on key events throughout the story and I don't think Mendes agreed with that, because he kept Swafford's voice to a minimum throughout the film. When he does allow the voiceovers to guide you through the story, they easily become some of the best moments in the film.

Jarhead has all the makings of a heavyweight Oscar contender, but one key missing ingredient leaves the film feeling hollow. Great dark humor, excellent visuals, tense pacing and a ironic subplot that pays off (or doesn't depending on your sense of humor) in the end are all pieces that will make this film a popular war flick, but the lack of any emotional attachment to the characters prevents jarhead from joining the list of all time classic war films like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now.


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Vince Palomarez
Sources: Images property of Universal Pictures

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