November 11, 2005

Jarhead puts up a good fight but falls short of victory

A tense moment involving Private Anthony “Swoff” (the underappreciated Jake Gyllenhaal), a fellow soldier, a rifle, and a plea for death occurs in the middle of Jarhead, director Sam Mendes’s gritty new film. The moment is rigid, a desperate attempt to slice through the thickness of the mundane world of the Marines that the film so devotedly depicts.

We are informed that a “jarhead” not only refers to the shape of a Marine’s head after his hair is cut, but also a reference to his head as an “empty vessel.” The film is so faithful to the manifestation of the second half of that statement that the audience becomes part of that emptiness. We desire anything that will fill the void.

Jarhead is the kind of film that, despite its accuracy, doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It begins as a coming-of-age story, but never really focuses on that aspect. Gyllenhaal possesses just enough likeability to carry the weightiness of this film, which relies on its protagonist to elicit sympathy from the audience in order to work. Swoff is attractive and charming and could easily be someone that we know.

The film seems also to aspire to be funny. And it succeeds. However, most of these moments are cheap laughs—like when we get Swoff dressed in a thong, parading around the other men at a Christmas party in the desert. Indeed it is enjoyable in the moment but seems a bit out of place.

But once the film sets up moments like “Swoff in a thong,” I think the audience becomes so invested in that humor that it is hard to focus on the serious moments in the film. There is, however, a beautifully raw and touching scene near the end between Swoff and Staff Sargeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx). Here, Foxx captures a dedicated sergeant who wakes up each morning thanking God that he can have another day to fight. The film makes it hard to not sympathize with and support these men, despite your views on war.

Director Sam Mendes (Academy Award winner for American Beauty) captures the monotonous nature of the war environment for these men (somewhat like he did with suburbia in American Beauty). It is stifling and hot, nearly 112 degrees. They eat, sleep, party, play football, wait, and masturbate. Yes, the film informs us that there is a lot of masturbation, and understandably so. The tension-filled environment produces a sense of anticipation in these men. They know in their hearts that it is coming. They just don’t quite know when or what “it” is. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you view war), “it” doesn’t come for everyone.

In 1989, the U.S. sent 1,400 troops into the Gulf War. Nearly four months later, over half a million troops were deployed. Most came home having not fired a shot out of training. The frustration and insanity in Jarhead is almost overwhelming. It is so real and quiet that one might mistake it for being a boring film. But it is not. It is an honest look at the lives of these men. It is not a “war film.”

Jake Gyllenhaal is having a good year. He recently had a decent role in Proof, where he played Hal with a boyish, arrogant University of Chicago charm. And he can be seen in Ang Lee’s highly anticipated and controversial Brokeback Mountain in December. Here in Jarhead he is stronger, both physically and mentally. He has to be. His naiveté, however, is what we sympathize with. He doesn’t know how a war is fought. He doesn’t anticipate the uncomfortable environment. Gyllenhaal does adequate work here in his first real lead role, capturing the spirit of a young man who is not unlike us.

The Outsider, by French novelist Camus, is mentioned briefly early in the film. The novel, which centers on Mersault, a naïve, confused young man, fits well within the film. Swoff embodies some of the same characteristics of Mersault. He doesn’t understand why he is where he is. The difference is that Mersault actually succeeds in killing; Swoff never does. Indeed, Swoff tells us, “I never shot my rifle.”

“Every war is different. Every war is the same,” says Swoff near the end of the film. Wars are fought because we have our pride and integrity in mind. We want to be more powerful. We want to win. But we don’t always get the chance to be the hero. What Jarhead does, perhaps even brilliantly, is show us men who have no desire to be heroes; they just want to shoot their rifles every now and then. Perhaps that makes them selfish. I don’t think so, but I could understand how some could label them as such, depending how one views the legitimacy of war. The real test of strength for these men is not whether they can bring themselves to shoot and kill, but rather whether they can handle the waiting.

There is an interesting chant that comes up twice in the film and rings rather hauntingly in the wake of the current conflict in the Middle East: “This is my rifle. There are many others like it, but this one is mine. Without my rifle, I am nothing. Without me, my rifle is nothing.” Perhaps we are nothing without war. Perhaps.