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Jarhead   C+

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: William Broyles Jr. (based on the book by Anthony Swofford)
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Lucas Black, Chris Cooper, Jamie Foxx, Brian Geraghty, Jacob Vargas, Evan Jones, Laz Alonso.

Review by Rob Vaux

Jarhead is director Sam Mendes' attempt to present a new chapter in the long and proud history of anti-war movies. His chosen focal point, however, contains a number of pitfalls that ultimately doom an otherwise laudable effort. Jarhead centers on the tedium of war -- the slow, mind-numbing wait for action, in which young men trained in the art of destruction slowly go crazy anticipating the application of their craft. The trouble is that presenting boredom can often be... well, boring, and despite an impressive technical production, the film becomes as much of an ordeal for the audience as it is for the Marines it portrays.

Indeed, the trouble starts with the characters themselves, who are neither compelling nor particularly memorable despite some good turns from actors such as Jamie Foxx and Peter Sarsgaard. Mendes and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. deliver unto us a predictable gamut of young soldiers, presumably drawn from the real life of Anthony Swofford's autobiographical source material. We've seen their kind before -- some shiftless, some dedicated, some too dumb to succeed anywhere else -- and despite meticulous attempts made to engage us, they struggle to leave a lasting impression.

The culture in which they live draws more interest, however, and even becomes engrossing at points. Sent to the Saudi desert as a part of Operation Desert Shield, Lance Corporal Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his unit are subjected to the unbearable pressure of hurrying up and waiting for a war that never materializes. Mendes captures their sense of ennui admirably, as well as their destructive machismo that metastasizes in the sizzling heat. The troops do a lot of chest-beating, harassing each other in a rough combination of hazing and male bonding, while their kick-ass staff sergeant (Foxx) tries vainly to keep their energy focused on the hypothetically upcoming battle. The film finds particularly fertile ground in the Marines' approach to women, who are nowhere to be seen and whom they objectify with an ever-shifting combination of adulation, jealousy, and fuck-fantasy lust.

The difficulty, however, is that once we key into the basic concepts Jarhead really doesn't go anywhere with them. The troops' expectations -- fueled by Hollywood movies and the USMC's commitment to kicking ass -- are flummoxed and frustrated at every turn, giving rise to the intriguing notion that preparing for war can be as traumatic as war itself. But that intrigue is too slow in developing, and often skims over the pertinent questions rather than grappling with them. In its place is a series of interesting set pieces, carefully assembled and gorgeously filmed: troops playing football in full chemical suits, in-formation hydrating beneath the blistering desert sun, and, in some of the film's most stunning moments, trekking through blackened sand as nearby oil rigs jet fire into the sky. Mendes is always a polished technical filmmaker, and the imagination that goes into the nuts and bolts here is impressive. Credit production designer Dennis Gassner, DP Roger Deakins, and art directors Stefan Dechant and Christina Wilson (as well as another great score from Thomas Newman) for excellent work.

Pretty pictures can only go so far, however, and without more bones beneath the meat, they eventually lose their punch. Mendes has struggled with that dilemma in earlier films, but his work rarely feels as hollow as it does here. In the end, the film's insight is more stilted than enlightening, and its attempt to invigorate the pantheon of anti-war movies is underwhelming considering the talent behind it. Beautiful tedium is still tedium; conveying it may serve an artful purpose, but too much of it can blunt whatever point you're trying to make. Jarhead does what is can with what it has, but it really needs a little more in its ammunition clip.

Review published 11.03.2005.

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