Universal Pictures
Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, and Peter Saarsgard
Rated R

With Jarhead as a third strike against him, director Sam Mendes has gained our mistrust of him the old-fashioned way — he’s earned it. His American Beauty was a dishonest bit of midlife crisis spiced with jailbait and hundredth-hand magical realism. Road to Perdition auto-asphyxiated itself via the applied pressure of even cheaper pandering disguising the fact that it was, in fact, about nothing but 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 in terms of surreal, Gulf War I imagery, but otherwise, we can’t argue with the film’s tagline: “Welcome to the suck.” 

Aiming to gain our goodwill 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 and enhanced by his director’s winky style. The downside of the approach is that it tells us almost nothing about Swoff. Is his sister — seen pushing a broom in a hospital setting — mentally ill? His Vietnam vet father abusive? His Mom a drunk? We don’t find out, but the images are arresting.

What we do learn for certain is that Swoff’s girlfriend’s a complete ditz, that he liked Army comics as a kid while also nursing a regularly referenced passion for Camus’ The Stranger — an early indication of the director’s craven existential overreaching. 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 Mendes covers his bets by having his grunts watch The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now — highlighted, of course, 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 sing-along version of the same. This conflation of death-dealing and teen horniness is repeated throughout the film, making the Marines look like some maniacal sex-death cult. And a rather unprofessional, inept one at that.

Once 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 bags, drink, burn themselves, masturbate compulsively, and so on, during which Swoff understandably starts to become somewhat unhinged. Finally, the Iraqi Republican Army attacks Swoff’s battalion, stunning the lad and 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 set-ablaze Iraqi oil drills. Then everyone wanders around until the film dribbles to its last prove-nothing frame. (There is an affecting moment where a sodden ex-Marine greets the new vets with sad bonhomie, but he looks far too young to be a Vietnam vet, and 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 an oil-soaked wandering horse, which, if nothing else, 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’re all familiar with the maxim about war being endless boredom punctuated by unspeakable horror. But watching largely unlikable, ignorant, necro-maniacal jerks 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.