With Jarhead as the third strike against him, director Sam Mendes has gained our mistrust the old fashioned way: He's earned it. His American Beauty was a dishonest bit of midlife crisis spiced with jailbait and 100th-hand magical realism. Road to Perdition asphyxiated itself via the applied pressure of even cheaper pandering, disguising the fact that it was, in fact, about nothing but the great cinematographer Conrad Hall's excellent pictures of people walking around in the rain. In Jarhead, a godawful adaptation of Anthony Swofford's eponymous memoir, another ace cinematographer Coen brothers regular Roger Deakins bails out the director with surreal, Iraq I imagery, but otherwise, we can't argue with the film's tagline: "Welcome to the suck."
Wanting to gain our good will before ramming his art up our hindquarters, Mendes at first limns his film as a sort of cheeky Catch-22 manqué, with Jake Gyllenhaal's sniper-to-be version of "Swoff" Swofford drolly narrating his backstory. The downside of the segment is that it tells us almost nothing about Swoff. Is his sister seen pushing a broom in a hospital setting mentally ill? Is his Vietnam-vet father abusive? His mom a drunk? We don't find out, but the images are arresting.
We do learn for certain that Swoff's girlfriend is a ditz, and that he liked army comics as a kid while also nursing a constantly referenced passion for Camus' The Stranger an early indication of the director's craven existential overreach. Still, be grateful for this frisky if frazzled expository routine; it's the only part of the film with anything resembling pace or stylistic coherence.
Swoff joins the Marines and trains at Camp Pendleton, where the grunts watch The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now highlighted by Coppola's famous scene of 'copters blowing away a Vietnam village to the accompaniment of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," which inspires the troops to perform a frenzied, homoerotic singalong version of same. The conflation of death-dealing and teen horniness is repeated throughout the film. It serves to make the Marines look like some maniacal sex-death cult. And a rather unprofessional, inept one at that.
Once they're in Iraq and waiting for Desert Storm to happen, Sgt. Siek (Jamie Foxx) leads Swoff and his grunt peers in the art of passing time. They play football in gas masks, build and then dismantle a pyramid made of sandbags, drink, burn themselves, masturbate compulsively and so on, during which Swoff understandably starts to become somewhat unhinged. Finally, the Republican Army attacks Swoff's battalion, stunning the lad and so giving Mendes a chance to reprise the silence-during-battle riff better utilized the first time we saw it in Saving Private Ryan.
After a while, the jarheads discover the Iraqi oil drills that have been set ablaze. Then everyone wanders around until the film dribbles to its last prove-nothing frame. (There is an affecting moment when a sodden ex-Marine greets the new vets with sad bonhomie, but he looks far too young to be a Vietnam vet. So much for that resonance.)
Really, everything that's good about the film is the work of Deakins. Particularly unforgettable is a fire-lit night shot of a wandering, oil-soaked horse. If nothing else, it would make the best death metal CD cover ever. Otherwise, it's hard to pinpoint whether Mendes is arrogant, feckless, thick or simply a jerk. We know the maxim that war is endless boredom punctuated by unspeakable horror. But watching largely unlikable, ignorant necromaniacs being bored doesn't tell us much about anything. It's possible that Mendes thought he was making an eternal statement about the plight of the grunt by insisting in many, repeated ways that their struggle is apolitical. But that doesn't put you above the fray. It only proves you're a dishonest coward.