"Jarhead" is not about war. And yet it is entirely about it. But wait – the film is actually about the kind of war where soldiers spend months in harsh enemy terrain without firing a single bullet. It's a hugely cynical concept – a war in which nothing really happens. This provocation lies at the heart of the new film by director Sam Mendes whose sardonic take on suburban life in "American Beauty" was rewarded by a plethora of awards and the loud clinging of box office tills. Mendes is a visualist and although he didn't break new ground with "Road to Perdition," a traditionally designed Greek tragedy about gangsters and familial strife, it was a sign of Mendes' artistic maturation. "Jarhead" is a disappointment partly because Mendes proves to be an unsuitable fit. The film, based on Marine Anthony Swofford's best-selling book, feels like a compromise between the director's yielding sensibilities and the edginess of the source material. There are two opposing forces at play in the film. "Jarhead" wants to be tough cookie-cutter that wears its cynicism on the sleeve and at the same time it yearns to be a contemplative mood piece full of introspection. It's a strategy that deprives the film of the kind of consistency that embodied Gregor Jordan's underrated "Buffalo Soldiers."
"Jarhead" begins with Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal) in boot camp; it is a scene that will make you wonder if Mendes was paying humble homage to Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" or coolly shoplifting. And incase you're curious, don't be; Swoff is the film's narrator and he will remind you a couple of times that the word Jarhead refers to his marine core's self-imposed moniker. The year is 1990 and Iraq has just invaded Kuwait. Fresh out of training, Swoff and his fellow jarheads will be sent on active duty into the sweltering heat of the Saudi Arabian deserts. Their orders: protect the oil fields. The soldiers will not return home for another eight months. During this time – described in an effective monologue by Swoff – they will try "suggested techniques" for avoiding boredom: cleaning rifles, playing football, and but of course, masturbation.
"Jarhead" works when it offers insights into the genetic makeup of its characters: soldiers who are hungry to kill the enemy or, in fact, anybody. Like Swoff most of them come from broken homes and a life of that offers them no reprieve. Signing up for the Marine Core is their temporary asylum from a society that has disowned them. They are ready to fight not because they need to, but because they can. And when faced with nothing to do in a war they do not understand, the soldiers react in the most reasonable way – they go nuts. "Jarhead" is amusing when it explores this dilemma but it is undone by heavy-handed melancholy. The essence of deadpan humor – a Sam Mendes trademark – is implicit in the prose. William Broyles Jr. who has adapted "Jarhead" for the screen is no Alan Ball. The dialogues in the film sometimes reek of ingratiation, a blunt attempt to generate laughs. Overall, the language in the film is pervasive and sometimes unnecessarily. I found this approach in disservice of a story that deserved better treatment.
Swoff tells us that "every war is different, every war is the same." This statement conceals an unexpected irony: "Jarhead" is not original; it brings nothing new to table. It wants to be different but it is like every anti-war film before it. Welcome to the suck? You betcha.
All that said, I am compelled to praise the film for the cinematography. The real star of "Jarhead" is its director of photography, Roger Deakins. He has captured the sparse desert landscape in stunning detail. There are scenes of astonishing beauty in the film – the burning oil fields are unquestionably iconic. If I were to recommend "Jarhead," which I cannot, I would do it on this basis alone. - Adnan Khan