Timur Bekir 06/02/2006
Jar.head n.slang; A US marine, term meaning 'empty vessel'…apparently. Sam Mendes' film Jarhead is a cynical film about Marines deployed to defend Kuwait during the first Gulf War. It begins in the sanitised environment of a Marine training camp where would be Marines, such as the films main protagonist Antony 'Swoff' Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), are being put through their paces. This means ridicule, abuse, torture and for some death. These scenes owe more than a debt of thanks to Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Mendes employs the same bleached whites and greys to fill his canvas that Kubrick used to fill his. The ritual abuse dished out by the new Marine's drill sergeant in Jarhead is almost a carbon copy of R. Lee Ermey's legendary drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. Mendes isn't being lazy though. The references to previous American war films come thick and fast. It is a knowing acknowledgment of the blinkered lens with which the MTV generation has viewed the act of war and conflict - through a camera lens with a throbbing rock soundtrack. On this level Jarhead becomes a satire of the media's portrayal of recent American conflicts. A generation of people who are too young to grasp the enormity of a conflict such as the Second World War see war only as it has been censored, condensed and choreographed on screen.
Specifically Jarhead is a film about men and male relationships with other men. There are only small scenes where the morality of the conflict is questioned and the film doesn't pretend to want to engage the viewer in ethical debate about the conflict. This is a testosterone-fuelled narrative about American men at war.
If war is a tool of patriarchy used to assert its dominance in foreign lands, and on foreign peoples, then in Jarhead war has the opposite affect for Americans. While in the Gulf the Marines loose their grip and, most significantly, their dominance on any meaningful relationships back in their native land. Cynically their female partners get bored of waiting for the troops to return and run off to find other men with which to get their sexual kicks. The marines meanwhile are left to pleasure themselves and recurring references to masturbation are frequent in the film. Read this, as you will - war is toss, our leaders are tossers, war and masturbation are no substitute for the love of a good woman.
Two thirds of the way through the film the cynicism ebbs slightly and Mendes extracts the beauty from the surreal situation of the war and romanticises upon it. Against the backdrop of burning oil wells cinematographer Roger Deakins uses vibrant oranges against dark blacks to create a dream like world that is strikingly beautiful. Against your better judgement you find yourself agreeing with Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx) when he says 'there is no where else he'd rather be'. Finding poetry in the bizarre, the horrific or the mundane is one of Mendes' strengths. Whether it is a brown paper bag blowing in the wind in American Beauty or being rained upon by a shower of oil and fire in Jarhead, Mendes will extract a scenes beauty.
Jarhead has had a mixed reception, some arguing that it has a lack of political conscience and others praising its realistic portrayal of Marine life. As it stands I feel Jarhead deserves your attention as it does play the war film from a different angle which is no mean feat in the over crowded American war genre. As it stands Jarhead is no empty vessel.