A Preview Of War

JARHEAD is the third movie by one of my favorite directors, Sam Mendes. (His first two, AMERICAN BEAUTY and ROAD TO PERDITION were both in my Top 3 for their respective years.)

The biggest problem this time is Mendes hasn’t nailed down the tone so emotional payoffs are a bit muddled. Is the film pro or anti war? Pro or anti soldier? I understand the complexity and emotional realism the film is aiming for, but the transitions are too rough.

There are a number of great scenes, and the first half hour seems the most cohesive. But once the soldiers get to the Middle East, the slow scenes really hurt the forward momentum and the film becomes more of a hit and miss affair.
Even in its incomplete form, one aspect that stood out as outstanding was the cinematography by Roger Deakins (THE VILLAGE, KUNDUN as well as most films by The Coen Brothers.) Mendes prior movies were shot by the late Conrad Hall, and they both won him an Oscar.

Deakins work here should at least earn a nomination. He expertly balances washed out daylight, with startling twilight shots and nighttime scenes of burning oil fields that give the sand a dreamlike quality. A particularly interesting image follows some aircraft as they fly overhead, appearing in the dark of night and soaring towards the rising sun. Another shows a soldier reading a letter from home outside his tent, while his comrades party hard inside.
Jake Gyllenhaal does fine work in what is probably his most difficult role to date. His character makes the most jagged shifts; proud to be a Marine in one scene, then ashamed in the next. Foxx’s Staff Sergeant is nowhere near the challenge of RAY, the work is closer to that of COLLATERAL.
Peter Sarsgaard has been a good actor doing solid work in a lot of small movies over the last few years. This may be his best performance. I’ve always liked him, but in the past when his character was laid back, he often played him too laid back, threatening to fade into the scenery. This time he still nails his big moments, but he also maintains the intensity during the quiet ones.

JARHEAD treads emotionally uneven ground with several outstanding sequences and a few irksome moments. How I wish the first shot wasn’t a direct lift of the first shot from FULL METAL JACKET. A few other scenes along the way also reminded me of that flawed but interesting picture. It’s a really good movie, but like FULL METAL JACKET, still not good enough to compare to the director’s previous accomplishments.


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