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DVD Review: Jarhead

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“A man fires a rifle for many years. And he goes to war. And afterword he turns his rifle in at the armory, and believes he is finished with the rifle. But no matter what else he might do with his hands, love a woman, build a house, change his son’s diaper; his hands remember the rifle.”

This sets out the theme of Sam Mendes’ film adaption of Anthony Swofford’s powerful autobiography Jarhead. The story follows Swofford as he enters the Marine Corps, joins the members of the elite scout sniper team lead by Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), and the bond he forms with the other men in his unit. Being deployed to Iraq during the pre-emptive days before Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, “Swoff” (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his fellow Marines find themselves stuck in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert, with nothing to do but patrol the barren land and try to subdue their boredom. The Marines’ only hope for staving off nervous breakdowns is to find humor, occupy their time, and eventually seek out their place in a war that lasted all of about four days.

Jarhead is a story that dances along the line between being a serious war flick and a self-destructive satire, but with a little more humor and style than most. You could compare it to Stanley Kubrick’s legendary Full Metal Jacket, but Jarhead lacks the dark undertone that made this such a compelling story. This film, in contrast, attempts to use humor to lighten the mood of war and throws a few very tense dramatic sequences in for good measure.

The unfortunate part about that is the fact that we are inundated with war movie clichés. Once Swoff makes it into the scout sniper group we meet what will become his war buddies. There is the eccentric dumbass who wants to collect dead Iraqis (Evan Jones); the quiet, nerdy almost victim-esque outcast (Brian Geraghty); the sentimental non-specific Latino (Jacob Vargas); not to mention the unlikely friend to the hero who also has a dark past or secret (Peter Sarsgaard). Gyllenhaal’s Swoff fits right into the cliché as the unlikely hero, but ultimately in a more creative manner.

Even through all of the movie clichés within this film, there are still a few captivating performances to note. Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a lowly yet lovable Swoff, torn by his choice to join the Marines and his boredom almost to the point of insanity. Peter Sarsgaard delivers a very predictable but always entertaining performance: so many of his roles dating back to his performance in Garden State and beyond see him portraying an unsung sarcastic asshole. He reprises such a role in Jarhead, but delivers to the screen a great balanced dynamic with Gyllenhaal.

Finally, the performance that steals the show in my opinion is that of Jamie Foxx. Foxx could have allowed the character of Sykes to become your average prophetic, yet hardcore military cliché, but opted to give the character the right amount of class, edge and emotional depth – truly one of his most underrated performances.

And while this film may not have delivered quite the same thought-provoking and deep tone as Anthony Swofford’s book, it is very easy to tell that its visual mastery is the handiwork of Sam Mendes. You will remember Mendes’ style from his early renowned work at the helm of 1999 Best Picture winner American Beauty. In that film Mendes showed off his ability to use stark contrasting colors to draw emotion from the audience. Here, Swoff and the boys come up to a highway that has been bombed by U.S. planes. The stark contrast between the white sand beneath the feet of the men and the charred humanity around them creates an amazingly eerie feel for the scene.

Mendes also uses various bits of slow motion during the film to slow down the action and truly bring the audience into the mind of Swoff, which is a tactic that I feel can often be overused by directors. In this instance, however, Mendes uses it well and it adds to the dramatic effect of the movie.

The standout feature of the Collectors Edition is the cover art. This is something that is very similar to the recently reviewed Walk the Line Collector’s Edition, and something that I hope becomes a trend for studios. The cover art depicts very captivating scenes from the film and even contains a small booklet with even more great stills. And once you are past the cover art, you get to the solid 5.1 mix, anamorphic widescreen reproduction of Mendes’ visually stunning film. But as with all great DVDs, once the film is over the experience has only begun.

There are plenty of deleted scenes, commentary with Sam Mendes, and even some extended Swoff fantasy sequences (similar to the bathroom scene where he vomits up sand.) And then there is the second disc, which is full of great featurettes that not only depict the making of the film, but also a few short documentaries about the lives of Marines and their adjustment back into society after serving.

On a par with other modern war films, Jarhead may not be able to carry the dramatic weight of Full Metal Jacket or the epic scale of Saving Private Ryan, but it does serve its own niche. The story in the film is not quite as compelling as the book — which is often the case — but that does not stop Sam Mendes from delivering a film that is both a visually intriguing and well acted homage to Marine life. The performance from Gyllenhaal is his best of the year, and the supporting cast does their job in making you believe that they are all really Marines being driven insane with boredom. In the end, all of these factors add up to make a DVD that is well worth the purchase. And while Jarhead may not change your life, it may change the way you view the lives of our soldiers who are sent to fight in the Middle East.

The Upside:
Another visually compelling masterpiece from Sam Mendes.
The Downside:
A story full of classic war flick clichés, and a tale that does not live up to the great book written by Anthony Swofford.
On the Side:
The word “f*ck” and its variants are used 278 times in this film (38 times with the prefix “mother”).

Making the Grade:
The Film: A-
The Delivery: B
The Extras: A+
Overall: A

By Neil Miller, the Editor of Film School Rejects.

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