Welcome to frat house ‘USMC’ | VailDaily.com

Welcome to frat house ‘USMC’

Shauna Farnell
Special to the Daily Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal), right, is demoted to toilet duty and made to hydrate overtime after a night of ill-advised drunkenness during his designated Christmas watch in "Jarhead."

Jarhead is a derogatory word that refers to a Marine, citing the appearance of the common military buzz cut. But as described in “Jarhead,” the term also implies that a Marine is somebody whose head has been emptied; emptied and ready to be filled with the necessary commands, which, in the case of war, culminates in “kill, kill, kill.”The title of this film implies that it is going to be a story chalk full of U.S. Marine Corps-bashing, and possibly containing more than its fair share of anti-war sentiments. When it came down to it, I was immediately not sure what “Jarhead” was about. I definitely wouldn’t peg it as anti- or pro-Marine, much less pro- or anti-war. Based on the book by Anthony Swofford, who, as an ex-Marine in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield/Storm – I’ve heard from people who read the book – had some reasonably bad experiences within the institution of the Marine Corps.

Director Sam Mendes’ “Jarhead,” however, comes across as ambivalent. Mendes (of “American Beauty” and “Road to Perdition” fame) starts with a discomforting introduction of the 20-year-old Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal) into the Marines. First, a drill sergeant smashes his head into a chalkboard. Then, his squad attacks him en masse, leaving him unconscious and duct-taped to his metal bed frame. They spare him the hazing of having “USMC” branded onto his shin, but the fear of the hot rod has been forever instilled. While this might lead any self-respecting, cognitive being to ask oneself, “why the hell would I want to join the armed forces?” there are in fact some respectable characters of higher rank in “Jarhead.” For example, Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx) doesn’t come off as the wild-eyed terminator that one would expect from a film taking a whole-hearted stab at the ridiculousness and inhumanity of Marine life. Sykes is a competent leader, strict but not entirely heartless. His role in the film – especially his “I love my job” loyalty to the Marines, negates any argument that this is a movie about how jarheads are complete morons.”Jarhead” is a good war movie for people who don’t like war movies. You don’t see characters for whom you’ve developed a fondness get their stomachs shot open, there are no rape scenes and the incinerated bodies are kept to a relative minimum (relative to the likes of “Saving Private Ryan,” “Platoon,” and “Hamburger Hill”). Beware: There are incinerated bodies.”Jarhead” is about a fraternity house isolated in the Middle Eastern desert. It’s full of young, impressionable, bare-chested 20-somethings who have been brainwashed into being killing machines. This isn’t the right war for them, however, because that dangling carrot – the bloody annihilation of some faceless follower of Saddam Hussein – is something they never get to sink their teeth into. Poor boys.

Despite the frat-like, party behavior Swoff’s troop slips into while waiting for combat in the 120-degree heat, I found myself oddly sympathetic with them, especially Swoff, who spends day after day thinking about his girlfriend and wondering how she’s spending her life in the alternate reality outside of the sand-filled tent of war anticipation hell. He’s just a kid who’s trying to stay sane.There is no question that Swoff is a loyal Jarhead like all the rest, but for empty-headed killing machines, each of these hollow vessels has a touching story. This is a film about how these young men bring their delicate lives into a situation where they could be lost in a split second, and are taught to salivate at the thought of firing their weapons into a live target. It’s a film about how they return to their delicate lives but never again feel delicate. These are people who have been transformed. They know how they’ve been transformed – because of all they’ve seen and done … or haven’t done. But why? They probably don’t know why any more than the rest of us.

Staff Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext.14632, or sfarnell@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado

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