“We never have to come back to this shit hole ever again!”
When Private Fergus (Brian Geraghty) shouts these jovial words during the end desert sequence in Sam Mendes’ Jarhead, the viewer knows he’s wrong (the U.S. having already been entrenched in Iraq for two years upon the film’s release). This moment exemplifies the procedural contradictions strung together both seamlessly and aimlessly throughout the film, but also the purposeful lack of foresight bread within the modern American military complex. Instead of the clear cut righteousness seen in films like We Were Soldiers and Saving Private Ryan, Jarhead gives us a blatant mixture of boredom and machismo, something toxic that has consumed both Fergus, our main character Anthony Swafford (Jake Gyllenhaal), his spotter Troy (Peter Sarsgard), and every other grunt we’ve seen. More generally, Jarhead seems to be obsessed with two attributes, namely the desire to finish (as in destroying an unseen enemy, masturbating, killing) and the heartache of a disappointed aftermath (as in coming to grips with the experience of being a Marine and in turn leaving the Corp). This is the third time I’ve seen Jarhead, and it’s a testament to Mendes’ brilliant blocking and Roger Deakins perfect camera work that this complicated and strange film gets better with each viewing. Like Scorsese’s The Departed, Jarhead wanders around plot points and right through typical Hollywood character arcs, which ultimately makes for an exhilarating and frustrating experience. The experience of the viewer rightly fits well with the personal and uncomfortable material, written by Swafford as a memoir and adapted for the screen by William Broyles Jr. When Swafford and his buddies were sent to Iraq in early 1991, they understood a war-zone awaited them. But their role, and the role of the Marine’s in general, could not have been anticipated by their gung-ho demographic. As Swafford muses about the activities Marine’s should use to combat boredom, we get a sense of loss, a sense of death in his words. He and his brethren were trained to fight, but yield little insight from their commanders (represented by Jamie Foxx’ Staff Sergeant) to why they aren’t able to keep up with the fast paced war ahead of them. These men essentially see each other as individuals (brilliantly displayed in the taped interview segments), which is in conflict with the group mentality of the American military. Interestingly, the men of Jarhead learn that the process is more lasting than the final result, and end up becoming a surrogate family by the end, even though their connection is completely broken and painful. Mendes’ last fade of a suburban landscape into the endless desert is the scariest segment in the film. For the first time we realize Swafford’s mental terrain cannot be altered back toward innocence, and much like the film itself, his disregard for easy answers leaves a fractured impression of war outside the realm of cinematic familiarity. He will indeed be living in mental shit hole for the rest of his life, more so than we can ever know.