In a Kuwaiti desert lit only by burning oil fields, Jarhead's main character runs into the unexpected. With oil raining down on him, U.S. marine Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds a tame horse walking only feet away. The horse, like everything else, is coated in oil. Its breathing is heavy. The animal seems burdened by the weight of its new slick coat. With pity, Swofford places his hand on the horse and mutters, "You're covered in this war."

This quote adequately describes everyone in Jarhead, a brutally realistic film about soldiers saturated in war. It sticks to them and seeps into every crevice of their lives. They wear it. They breathe it. They try to understand it. But, like that horse, it can't ever be washed off. It can't be ignored. In fact, war will never leave these soldiers. War becomes who they are.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Anthony Swofford, a U.S. Marine preparing for Operation Desert Storm

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Anthony Swofford, a U.S. Marine preparing for Operation Desert Storm

Directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, The Road to Perdition), Jarhead is based on the 2003 book by ex-marine Anthony Swofford. The movie follows Swofford as he enlists in the Marines because, his character says, "I got lost on my way to college." After basic training, Swofford becomes a scout sniper and is sent to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield. Separated from his beloved girlfriend, Kristina, Swofford and fellow soldiers place their attention on preparing for war—looking forward to warfare. And this is where the film stays for most of its runtime: with the soldiers' six-month wait for a war to start. They hydrate. They clean their rifles. They miss their girlfriends and wives. They exercise. They hydrate themselves more.

In all actuality, Jarhead—entitled for the nickname given to empty-headed Marine recruits—is not a war movie. This is not John Wayne. The day isn't saved. And there's no political discussion about whether the U.S. should be in a war with Iraq, or in any war at all. Instead, the film pointedly moves past those issues and focuses on the reality that in any war, there are people who wage it. For good or bad, this is their job. This is what they do. And like in Mendes's American Beauty and Road to Perdition, the story unpacks what that choice and career means. What do soldiers experience mentally? What is it like to war for a living? How does it color you for life?

This sometimes Full Metal Jacket-like thematic focus allows Jarhead to make war—and emotional turmoil—feel tangible and all too real. The film's realism comes in a far different way than the war realism of Saving Private Ryan. Whereas that film's realism came from putting viewers in strikingly vivid battle scenes to show what soldiers experience, Jarhead's realism comes from showing how soldiers feel. There's very little combat shown in the film. Instead, most of the battles are mental. When combat is shown, the film looks at it in an almost mundane, blue-collar way. In the only real combat sequence, Swofford's big heroic duty isn't to save civilians or take out an enemy tower, but to get some more batteries. These are the things that make war tick.

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Jamie Foxx as Staff Sergeant Sykes, here with Swofford on Christmas Day

Jamie Foxx as Staff Sergeant Sykes, here with Swofford on Christmas Day

But for Gulf War veterans like Swofford, there wasn't much war to tick by. After all, their 175-day wait in the desert led to a 4-day war in which many of these Marines didn't even fire their weapons. The filmmakers take this opportunity to make Jarhead a search for meaning and existence. What is a soldier who doesn't get to soldier? How does someone define himself or herself when removed from everything they knew? This track of discovery leads Mendes to show not just the ugliness of war, but also the ugliness of man.

Gyllenhaal plays Swofford much like he portrayed Donnie Darko's title character—with a sly, tongue-in-cheek view of the world but with a big internal void to fill. These characters are on Catcher in the Rye-like searches for sanity, meaning and purpose. They are filled with emptiness. As the film begins, Swofford doesn't have much connection with his family. He has no career direction or passion. Instead, his life seems to pretty much revolve around his girlfriend and having sex with his girlfriend. We don't ever really know why Swofford chose the Marines. It could be that his Dad was a Marine, but it also seems to be that this was a direction where he had none.

The men sometimes pass the time by playing football in the desert heat—in full battle gear

The men sometimes pass the time by playing football in the desert heat—in full battle gear

When Swofford is separated from Kristina by the war, he goes into a tailspin. His entire identity seems to be wrapped up in her back home. He obsesses over her—constantly haunted by the idea that life is continuing in the U.S. without him. And without her to define him, he searches for something—anything—to hold onto, but he finds nothing greater to live for. This is a sad and bleak existence, and Mendes pulls no punches in showing the worldly darkness. It's hard to watch. Many viewers will not want to put themselves through this relentless depiction of unchecked aggression, casual treatment of sex and wall-to-wall swearing. But this is the reality of war and life unredeemed. Swofford descends into near-madness as his longing, jealously, rage and boredom eat away at him. He swings from alcohol abuse to sexual obsession to continual masturbation to dark depression to frightening rage. In the end, the film's Marines crave action—or to just fire their rifles at something—merely to justify why they've waited in the desert. And to give their lives some purpose and definition.

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The difference between Gyllenhaal's descent into madness in Darko and Jarhead is this film's lack of hope. Swofford doesn't even consider there's more to life. God is almost completely absent in the events of Jarhead. Swofford's staff sergeant, Sgt. Siek (Jamie Foxx) is seen reading a Bible at one point, but there isn't much indication of how it informs his life. However, he is the only character who seems to be content. He even says he thanks God for every day he's in the corps. But for the most part, the film shows us the darkness and emptiness of life without greater meaning—and leaves us there. This will disturb some viewers, but it illustrates two important truths. One, war is hell and it changes a person; for the rest of their lives, these veterans will both run from it and seem stuck in it. Two, it shows very clearly the need for something greater in life. It shows the emptiness of a life not lived for God. The solution isn't given, but the bleak and dark journey through worldly answers show the need for hope in things that aren't fleeting.

Swofford (Gyllenhaas) and his buddy Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), waiting for the war to begin

Swofford (Gyllenhaas) and his buddy Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), waiting for the war to begin

Jarhead can feel almost suffocating in its darkness at times—and starts feeling a bit long in the final third. But what supports the film is witty and surprising writing, unforgettable sequences so bizarre you know they must come from Swofford's true life, and Oscar-caliber acting. Gyllenhaal carries the film with a steady and aggressive performance of irreverence and near-madness. Foxx and Chris Cooper play their small parts with fire, but Peter Sarsgaard steals the show as Troy, Swofford's sense-talking but troubled friend.

Thanks to its poignancy and expert crafting, Jarhead could become a classic war drama—one that speaks for a new era of solider and worldliness. Its messages of war's pervasiveness and life's emptiness is cemented in the end as Jarhead's soldiers finally leave the Middle East—but in many ways, remain in the desert.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. How does this film change/reinforce your feelings about what soldiers encounter in war? What has this movie caused you to think about life in war?

  2. In what ways did the film's characters try to fill their emptiness? What results did they have? What does this film say about what we choose to live for?

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  1. Do you think films that show the darkness and emptiness of life are valuable? Or do films need to show hope and Truth? Why?

  2. Have you ever felt—even without being in war—the feelings of desperation, longing, and need for definition that Swofford and Troy encounter? Why? What happened?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Jarhead is rated R for pervasive language, some violent imagery and strong sexual content. Take the R rating seriously. It's a very intense movie. War is depicted realistically. All the big swear words are used almost constantly, including use of the Lord's name in vain. There is not much war violence depicted, but there is plenty of shooting, frank discussion of killing, hand-to-hand fighting and many disturbing images of charred bodies. There's also a lot of frank discussion of sexual acts and masturbation. The movie has three brief, but intensely graphic, sex scenes—one features a group of soldiers watching a home porn movie—and one scene of masturbation. There is one very quick flash of a woman's breasts and several scenes of male nudity—usually from the backside, but also a lengthy frontal shot partially obscured by shower steam. One scene depicts a group of male soldiers pretending to engage in various sexual acts with each other to embarrass their staff sergeant.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 11/10/05

Before last week's opening of Jarhead, film critics and political bloggers seemed ready for a fight. Many expected the new film from director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, The Road to Perdition) to be an attack on U.S. intervention in Iraq, with grim depictions of American soldiers misbehaving and despairing.

Surprise! Most critics agree it's not an "anti-war" movie. In fact, many are bewildered by the film's lack of agenda either way. In his adaptation of Anthony Swofford's bestselling wartime memoir, William Broyles Jr. has altered the tone somewhat. Thus, this version of a Marine's experience in the first Gulf War shows us little more than a bunch of soldiers sitting around waiting for a chance to use their weapons and agonizing over the infidelities of their lovers back home.

The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum wonders if Mendes is "appealing to the antithetical preferences of both pacifists and warmongers. I suspect the warmongers lured in by the trailer will walk out disappointed and the pacifists will come away confused." In The New York Times, A.O. Scott says the film "walks up to some of the most urgent and painful issues of our present circumstance, clears its throat loudly and, with occasional flourishes of impressive rhetoric, says nothing." Other mainstream critics echo these misgivings.

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Religious press critics are similarly divided as to whether the film is worth seeing or not.

Tom Neven (Plugged In), who served in three infantry units in his seven-year Marine Corps experience, says the movie is misleading. "I never encountered a unit remotely as dysfunctional or undisciplined as the platoon portrayed in this film." He laments that the film gives the impression that American soldiers are "foul-mouthed, sex-crazed, homicidal maniacs and that their wives and girlfriends back home are unfaithful harlots just itching to hop into the nearest bed. After all, they have the 'word' of an actual former Marine." He admits, "Sure, there are some Marines who curse a blue streak, and some are obsessed with sex. Some of the immoral goings-on in this movie ring true … But the overall picture … is a large, deeply dishonest lie."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "The decidedly apolitical script … is full of raw language, which, while perhaps reflecting the reality of barracks banter, is—for a film—excessive." He continues, "At times, you feel the film is an indictment of the absurdity of war and its desensitizing psychological effects. But then it seems to approvingly revel in the chest-thumping, guts-and-glory machismo on display." He agrees with Neven regarding the soldiers' portrayal: "[M]ost come across as obscenity-spewing berserker warriors, fueled by raging testosterone and bloodlust, a stereotype which does disservice to the well-adjusted men and women who serve in the military with honor."

Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) also argues that the film is an exaggerated and disrespectful portrayal of U.S. soldiers. "For those reasons alone, Jarhead would be difficult to recommend, but because the film offers little else to set itself apart from superior films about wartime malaise and political incoherence … it's an easy call. The film's only contribution to the genre is evermore explicit violence, language, and sexuality—elements that are, sadly, far too common in the most frivolous fare today."

from Film Forum, 11/17/05

Matt Wiggins (Relevant) says, "It attempts to recreate the insanity of war as exposed in Apocalypse Now, but doesn't succeed as absolutely. Like The Deer Hunter, it hints at shattered post-war lives but rushes through that aspect. While based on real stories and experiences like Platoon, Swofford fails to find the redemptive aspects like Oliver Stone did. … It is a movie that aspires to much and acknowledges the greatness that has come before without quite stacking up."

Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Average Rating
(2 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for pervasive language, some violent imagery and strong sexual content)
Directed By
Sam Mendes
Run Time
2 hours 5 minutes
Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Lucas Black
Theatre Release
November 04, 2005 by Paramount
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