Tuesday 18th January 2022

Jarhead (15)
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Reviewed by: Dave Witt

The term "Jarhead" is a reference to the traditional haircut sported by the Marines, leaving their heads resembling... a jar. There is, of course, a further connotation – that their heads are empty vessels, filled with just about whatever anyone puts there. This impression is reinforced by the account of Anthony "Swoff" Swofford, a brighter than average recruit; a Camus-reading third-generation soldier, his explanation for joining the Marines was "I got lost on the way to college".

It was with a familiar sinking feeling that Jake realised he'd left the iron on
It was with a familiar sinking feeling that Jake realised he'd left the iron on

Adapted from his book published in 2003, Sam Mendes – the English theatre director known for the bleak but visually arresting American Beauty and Road to Perdition – brings us a film he recently described as an "anti-war-movie war movie". It will surprise no-one to hear that Jarhead is bleak, but visually arresting. Clearly, it is Jake Gyllenhaal season; fresh from herding sheep and confronting his sexuality in Brokeback Mountain, Gyllenhaal plays Swofford as a sardonic, surly squaddie who's too clever by half. Peter Sarsgaard plays his blank-faced, jaded buddy Troy, and Jamie Foxx chips in as Staff Sergeant Sykes, not quite your standard bullish NCO. All three performances deserve commendation; while the film rests on Gyllenhaal's shoulders (or perhaps his big blue eyes – not literally), he is ably supported throughout.

The film initially follows the same pattern as Full Metal Jacket, with the obligatory vindictive training period, complete with shouty-shouty drill instructor and brutal initiation rituals. While there is nothing especially new here, bar some of the more amusing turns of phrase used by the shouters, there is an underlying hint that perhaps this training is tougher and crueller than what you've seen before; its aim is to create tougher, crueller soldiers: Scout Snipers, the "one-shot-one-kill" elite infantry of the modern army. And how effective it is – creating a collection of aggressive, whooping gibbons, who cheer and sing along to the helicopter attack from Apocalypse Now.

Training over, Jarhead diverts abruptly from the FMJ route and travels firmly its own path. With the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Swoff and his buddies are shipped out to the Kuwaiti desert, whipped up into a frenzy to "kick some Iraqi ass" (with the caveat that they must first protect "our friends'" oil fields). And then... nothing.

From here on in, the spotlight is observing the effect of interminable waiting on these pumped-up jocks, pacing angrily under the scorching desert sun and waiting for the command to kill something. They drill, they hydrate, they masturbate, they hydrate, they pin photos of cheating wives and girlfriends on the "Wall of Shame", and they hydrate some more. As they simmer in the heat, there are the inevitable flashpoints, regarded dispassionately by Swofford (and Mendes behind the camera) until he reaches his own breaking point. And when the combat arrives, it is merely a brutally short confirmation that warfare has moved on – the formerly essential infantry have been superseded by laser-guided bombs delivered from thousands of feet above their heads. Needless to say, this does not go down well.

Jarhead's cinematography is an absolute triumph – once the desert vista visuals arrive, nearly every scene is an unforgettable sequence, beautifully composed and shot: the initial serene, baking nothingness of the squad's surroundings; the charred remains of an incinerated convoy, the sand black with soot; most strikingly, the burning oilfields – the flaming plumes on the horizon giving way to hellish, amber-lit perma-twilight, dense with black rain.

The music deserves a mention: irreverent, almost sarcastic musical choices pepper the film – T Rex's "Get It On" plays during a gas drill as the Marines fumble for their masks, "Don't Worry, Be Happy" fills in the soundtrack as Swofford receives an introductory beating from his squadmates. One of the problems of making a (first) Gulf War film is the lack of a defining sound, a mood for the time, and even the soldiers are aware of it: as a helicopter flies overhead blaring out the Doors, Swofford complains, "That's Vietnam music! Can't we get our own music?" Indeed, there is little available to them and their ‘war' to form a unique identity – just the desert that engulfs them.

Jarhead is not a war film like those that have gone before. While it features a war, it is as background to the lot of the soldier, and the state of his mind. And that's about it – little action, a lot of waiting, and long moments of silence. The film is surprisingly apolitical – while sympathetic to the situation of its subjects, it is resolutely even-handed in their portrayal, and there are very few overt parallels drawn with the current Iraqi situation. Whether this is a mistake is hard to say; while Jarhead achieves what it sets out to do, it leaves the impression it could have said a great deal more if it had wanted. Nevertheless, it remains a stark portrait of the result of creating the Ultimate Killing Machines, then giving them nothing to kill but time.

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Length: 123 minutes
Certificate: 15
Official Site:
IMDB Link:
Release Date: 13th January 2006

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