Sam Mendes’ “Jarhead” (2005)

Every director worth his salt seems, at one point or another, to tackle a war film.  Often, the particular war or setting chosen serves as a compelling prism with which to gaze into a given director’s own psyche and mentality about the nature of conflict.  In 2005, Sam Mendes followed up his masterful 2002 effort ROAD TO PERDITION with JARHEAD, a chronicle of the First Gulf War as experienced by one Marine.  What results is a powerful story about war as a state of limbo, told by a director with a firm grasp on characterization and mood.

Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) lived an aimless life until he joined the Marine Corps.  Describing his choice of enlisting as getting “lost on the way to college”, we observe the dehumanizing boot camp process, as well as experience Swofford’s evolving (or, perhaps, devolving) mindset via a numb voiceover that frames the story.  Halfway through the film, Swofford’s unit is sent out into the Kuwaiti desert for Operation Desert Shield, wasting away in the hot sun for months as they look after US interests in the region.  When conflict flares up, and Operation Desert Shield becomes Desert Storm, Swofford and his men find themselves in a war where the conflict doesn’t manifest itself in enemy combatants, but rather in their own internal psyches.

As a rule, Mendes commands career-best performances, and he more or less achieves it with JARHEAD.  As the film’s lead, Gyllenhaal is a paradox– an empty vessel, yet also a rebellious questioner of authority.  He wants to be a ruthless war machine, but he has a profound empathy and respect for human life.  It’s a manic, schizophrenic existence that’s not unlike the military itself.  He deals with his fears and anxieties by confronting them head-on, yet in oblique ways.  Plagued by suspicions that his girlfriend is cheating on him, he seeks out a videotape of a fellow Marine’s wife sleeping with another man, just to experience how it feels (It’s no coincidence that the video was taped over a VHS copy of Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER (1979), a classic film about male loyalty and friendship in the midst of war).  Swofford stands exposed in the midst of battle, peacefully letting flecks of shrapnel and sand flutter across his face like snow.  He’s a living ghost, haunted by the chaos of war that he never got to experience.  It’s one of Gyllenhaal’s best roles, as he gives himself fully over to Swofford in both body and spirit.

The mostly-male cast is filled out with recognizable faces as well as up-and-comers.  Peter Sarsgaard, as Swofford’s sniping partner, brings a dark, zen-like calm to the proceedings, but whose own internal demons threaten to destroy him.  Sarsgaard delivers an unhinged performance that reflects the impotent frustration that all the Marines feel during their time in the desert.  Jamie Foxx assumes the R. Lee Ermey archetype as the hardass Staff Sergeant Sykes.  Sykes is a man whose love for his job runs deep, almost to a psychopathic level, and he both intimidates and emboldens his men into becoming the killing machines he needs them to be.  Foxx delivers an intense performance, playing it dead serious and erasing any memory of him as a comedian.  Lucas Black, most recognizable from his role in THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT(2006), gets a fair amount of screen-time as a fellow knucklehead grunt, but doesn’t get much in the way of any significant character development.  Perhaps the most compelling of Swofford’s unit is Evan Jones as Dave “Squishy Face” Fowler, who gradually reveals the depths of his twisted-ness when he develops a strange fixation for burnt corpses.

Chris Cooper, in his second collaboration with Mendes since 1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY, makes a cameo appearance as Lieutenant Colonel Kazinski.  Channeling his overcompensating military macho man from that film, Cooper gives a pep talk to the newly-arrived Marines that fetishizes war and killing.  24’s Dennis Haysbert also appears, in a small role that I like to call Captain Pooper.  A stickler for pulling rank, Haysbert later becomes an important catalyst for Sarsgaard’s emotional breakdown.  It’s also worth noting that THE OFFICE’s John Krasinski apparently shows up (although I never saw him) as a character named Corporal Harrigan.  Krasinski would later go on to star for Mendes in AWAY WE GO (2009).

Visually, JARHEAD represents a stylistic deviation for Mendes.  After the passing of his previous collaborator Conrad Hall, Mendes struck up a new relationship with Director of Photography Roger Deakins (my favorite DP).   Mendes eschews his minimalist, classical aesthetic for a modern, gritty feel by utilizing predominantly handheld cameras and close-up framing.  The image is high in contrast, with severely desaturated colors that blend together in a tan, olive green, and brown color palette.  There are some dolly shots, mainly seen in stylized flashback tableaus that provide dioramic glimpses of Swofford’s background framed through a shutting door, but most of the film is firmly grounded in a shaky reality.  Interestingly, most of the desert scenes adopt an overexposed, bleached-out look where the desert blends in with the sky.  It creates a surreal limbo effect that perfectly communicates the Marines’ state of mind and reinforces the film’s central theme of being adrift in an emotional wasteland.

The editing, by famed editor Walter Murch, is quick, precise, and dynamic.  The pace is substantially quicker than Mendes’ previous efforts, and the result is a much more energetic story that feels contemporary and incredibly visual.  The soundtrack, with an original score by key Mendes collaborator Thomas Newman, is equally strong.  Newman’s score is percussive and exciting, laced with a Middle Eastern character that aptly communicates the setting and the ideology of its inhabitants.  A variety of early 90’s pop music populates the film as well, starting with the low-key reggae track “Don’t Worry Be Happy”, performed by Bob Marley.  Nirvana, The Doors, Public Enemy, and Kanye West all make aural appearances as well, infusing the film with a gritty, masculine musical quality.

The themes of JARHEAD are potent, lending to some truly memorable setpieces.  A recurring motif is the comparison of Operation Desert Storm to the Vietnam War.  The soldiers, themselves the children of Vietnam vets, yearn to fight their own war, but the specter of battle that emotionally scarred and marooned their elders threatens to consume them too.  Allusions to Vietnam are made frequently: one scene shows the Marines cheering and hollering during a screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW’s (1979) infamous “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence.  Helicopters fly over ground troops in the desert, blasting popular music from the Vietnam era as a soldier opines “why can’t they play our music?”.  The structure of the film itself plays out like a contemporary update to Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET (1987), with the first half set in boot camp and the second half in battle.

That being said, Mendes finds many moments that distinguish JARHEAD from other films of its ilk.  A scene featuring the Marines playing tackle football in full gas-mask gear comes to mind.  A conflict in which ground troops never fire a single shot causes those same troops to unload their ammo into the sky as an emotional release, perhaps in an attempt to shoot God himself out of the heavens.  The Marines are seen at the end of the film, in civilian clothes and working normal jobs– their minds unable to fully move on from their time in the desert.  All these moments, and more, come together to form a deeply philosophical, internalized story of armed conflict.  But perhaps the most profound moment for me is the moment in which the Vietnam comparisons come full circle.  As the Marines triumphantly return home, a frazzled Vietnam vet storms their bus and congratulates them on winning the war “clean and true”, and then asks to ride with them.  It’s an incredibly cathartic moment where a troubled veteran finds solace in the victories of the next generation.  The moment gets to the root of JARHEAD’s thesis: every conflict is different, but the experience is always the same.  In that experience lies brotherhood and a sense of belonging.

JARHEAD is ultimately a descent into the hell of the mind.  This is reflected with Mendes’ increasingly dream-like landscapes, which morph from drab, colorless flatlands to long stretches of darkness punctuated by orange towers of fire and raining oil.  It is here that the Marines must confront their deepest demons and battle for their very souls.

While not quite a full-on masterpiece like AMERICAN BEAUTY or ROAD TO PERDITION, Mendes crafts a superb character drama wrapped up in the desert camo trappings of a war film.  It’s as psychedelic an experience as any Vietnam film before it, and it won’t be shaken easily.   JARHEAD sheds much-needed light on the players in a major conflict about which very little is known.

JARHEAD is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Universal.