REVIEW: “Jarhead” (**1/2)

Posted by · 6:47 am · October 21st, 2005

JarheadSam Mendes’s “Jarhead” makes no immediate attempt to connect you to its central character. It makes no attempt to pump emotion and empathy into the veins of the audience. It falls in line with Mendes’ penchant for colder, more removed depictions, and it’s potentially the material that most suits this penchant that the director has come across to date.

I don’t blame the film for any of this. In fact, I rather champion it for it. The thematics come across, even if Mendes doesn’t follow through when he could have REALLY hit it out of the park, but the overall sense one gets from the film is a mish-mash of the offerings we’ve seen from other war film directors.

Following a protagonist reminiscent of Albert Camus’ central focus in “The Stranger,” Bill Broyles’s screenplay (based on the novel by Anthony Swofford) gets to the point abruptly and hammers it home for the remainder.

In the eyes of a “jarhead,” as envisioned by Swofford, life is a meaningless existence.  The journey of a soldier is less about defending a nation than it is about defining himself (or herself). In the middle of the desert, miles away from anything that matters in their world, no matter what they’re told by those in positions of power, the lives of freedom fighters are worthless in the eyes of those who live them.

Camus’s existentialist novel makes a cameo appearance in the film, being perused by Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) during the most mundane of activities. Ironically enough, it is this very scene that introduces Swofford to one of many false opportunities for purpose in the film.

I’ll concede a second viewing may be in order for this, a film that doesn’t quite know where to follow through. Regardless, a few things are of immediate note.

Jake Gyllenhaal offers his greatest performance to date in a real showcase that is worthy of Matthew Modine, Martin Sheen and Charlie Sheen. But Oscar? Just look to those three wonderful performances for the answer in that department.

(from left) Jamie Foxx and Jake Gyllenhaal in JarheadThe two true supporting possibilities come in the form of Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx (this we already knew), and while the former does have an explosive scene that encompasses what the film is about, I don’t know if it is enough for him to finally receive that makeup nomination for slights the last two years. Last year’s Best Actor winner is in the best position of any actor in the race this year to be the annual return nominee, but it’s a tough sell given the nature of the film.

I also have to add that this is Roger Deakins’s most uninspired work in many, many years. In a film seething with inner turmoil, there is a definitive visual commentary to be made. That artistry is nowhere to be seen.

The issue the film runs into ultimately is a resistance to commit to either the fantastical (“Apocalypse Now”) or the realistic (“Black Hawk Down”). The only war films that have successfully dipped their pens in both wells have been “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket,” the former from a vet with true perspective, the latter from an intense and dedicated artist. Mendes does not do this well in “Jarhead,” and the issue may very well be his own lack of perspective on the scenario he depicts.

Ultimately the film has something to say and it says it. We as an audience may not necessarily invest in the characters or learn anything of note about who they are and where they come from, but that is not always the point to be made in a film. Sometimes it’s about where the characters are, and where they will, will not or even can go from that point. “Jarhead” accomplishes this, even if it stumbles frequently along the way to that end.

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