Sam Mendes has already solidified his place as one of the most impressive directors working today; sparked by his impressive debut in American Beauty, driving it even further with films like Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road. Skyfall was an example of Mendes being meta, taking in the roots of its franchise and creatively fleshing it out for a contemporary audience. Jarhead, an earlier film, shows the director doing the same but this time on the war genre. His appreciation of his predecessors is found erratically on screen; it manages to be the film's best and worst quality.
Jarhead tells a story that film enthusiasts have seen countless times, a fresh face coming into a hard world and his experiences would slowly start to define and shape his life; it sounds very similar to Full Metal Jacket. I do not mind films treading over the same themes because originality is hard to come by nowadays, but what is essential is interesting and effective execution. First of all, the film lacks a special protagonist, why is it essential for us to follow Anthony Swofford? It's a character that seems to take in multiple aspects of iconic war films and because of this there is nothing fresh or exciting qualities found in him, therefore making it difficult to show care for his pain and struggles. If the film decides to become distant with its characters, similarly approached by Malick's The Thin Red Line and Scott's Black Hawk Down, then Jarhead would have probably been more superficial but a much more pleasant experience. Jarhead wants to be profound and thought provoking, but there is simply no point in doing so if the road is too familiar.
As I have said, the film is full of references and in a way it does show how intelligent Sam Mendes is, but the lack of creativity in its usage made the experience difficult to absorb. Mendes was also unable to craft any tense or boiling scenes that would have elevated the film's drama; Jarhead is more of human drama, than it is an tense action flick, therefore friction is needed to keep the audience's interest and the film does have it, but it was poorly handled.
Thankfully the film does at certain moments look great, with Roger Deakins capturing the emptiness of the desert and the burning night that dominates its third act. It may not be Deakins' most inspiring of works but it is without a doubt impressive; it's just sad that other aspects of the production were not up to par with Deakins' contribution. This may actually be one of the most unmemorable musical scores by Thomas Newman. I cannot for the life of me remember one original piece tune or melody from this film; it is easier to recall the classic tunes and themes that the film displays between every couple of scenes.
Jake Gyllenhaal has already proven to me that he is a valuable and committed actor, and that commitment is found in this film, but sadly he is working with a role that is dull and uninspired. It was difficult to appreciate the effort that he brings to the role, as the character's frustrating personality starts to become more apparent as the film goes on. Gyllenhaal is much better playing the softer roles, where their sense of menace or pain is lurking underneath them; bets examples would be Enemy, Nightcrawler, Prisoners, Brokeback Mountain and Zodiac.
Jarhead is a forgettable war film that unfortunately leaves a bad mark on an impressive director's filmography. I doubt this film would grow on audiences later on, as there is very little here that we haven't already chewed on before. I suggest instead to watch the classic films that it references; most notably Full Metal Jacket.
This is also an absolutely gorgeous movie, I mean the cinematography is breathtaking, sometimes seen through a faulty gas mask or a game of desert football, with flaming oil fields in the night sky, black rain and an oil drenched, drowning horse. Haunting. as was the ending when we see the guys several years later. 9/29/14