Time in the desert: 122 days, 5 hours, 22 minutes.
Separating this film in my mind from The Hurt Locker and American Sniper was a little tough, the films share the now abundantly clear ‘war is hell’ message. But Jarhead turns it on its head a little bit. What’s more hellish than war? Training for a war you’ll stay at least 200 meters away from at all times might just be.
Watching Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his rag-tag group of jarheads navigate war is different in that the intensity of the scenes do not derive from the huge action set pieces or intense firefights with the enemy. Rather the war takes its toll psychologically with the gruelling training and hard-asses Swoff has to call his superiors, ultimately all leading to in-fighting and emotional trauma you’d expect from your anti-war movies. But the closest we get to having a foreign entity to blame causing such trauma to our war heroes is through a high powered rifle scope.
I enjoyed Swoff’s rapidly changing circumstances. Right as I find myself getting bored of sand, army camps and misery we are shown the delight that is raining crude-oil and burning oil wells, changing the scenery from wide-open nothingness to the hellish backdrop of Iraq, or hell. That works too.
Such a backdrop would suit the final action scene where the jarheads are finally able to unleash all they learned through training by wiping out uncountable enemies through sheer superiority. Instead, Jarhead hammers home a different message. No spoilers but you feel incredibly frustrated for Swoff and his spotter when their time to go home arrives. The war took everything from them and gave nothing back, even if what they wanted came from pure blood lust. Swoff’s experiences are frustrating, unsatisfying and pointless.
The darkest point for him comes when he has to leave the war behind, war he dedicated years of his life to, war which he had very little impact on. Watching on as everyone else celebrates the end of violence. What are they celebrating after all? Leaving behind all the blood, sweat and tears and coming away with nothing to show for it. Leaving him isolated and purposeless. Death might be the worst thing about war, but it’s not the only thing that makes it as damaging as it is.
Encapsulating the war experience well in a tidy, unique way with some great acting and tightly written dialogue. The narrative leans more on its psychological journey than its physical one, so if its action you’re looking for you might be better off with American Sniper. Look for something less heavy-handed and more well-rounded and you’ll find yourself at Jarhead.
[on par with my ratings of Quantum of Solace and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials]