Violence Is Golden

Washington City Paper | November 4, 2005
Is violence hard-wired into the movie medium? Do film’s propulsive rhythms lead naturally to the thrown punch and the fired bullet? Two new releases—Sam Mendes’ bleakly funny, stunningly realized Jarhead and Hany Abu-Assad’s taut and provocative Paradise Now—form a kind of counterargument, bringing us worlds in which violence, far from erupting, remains eternally, almost unnaturally, constrained. The drama here is in the pulled punch, the bullet not fired. Which poses a question to us: As moviegoers weaned on a steady diet of mayhem, can we go without violence’s cathartic pleasures?

Whatever frustrations we might feel on that score are echoed by Jarhead’s battle-hungry Marines, who are themselves moviegoers. Early on we see members of the elite STA Unit whooping it up to the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” air-raid sequence from Apocalypse Now, roaring their approval at every bombed hut and strafed villager. A few weeks later, courtesy of Operation Desert Storm, they’re trudging through the sandy wastes of Iraq and Kuwait, swigging water, squirming in and out of chemical-weapons suits, and bracing for firestorms that never materialize. Small wonder they come to resent the movies that whetted their appetite for action. When someone plays a Doors tune from the Apocalypse Now soundtrack, Swoff, the movie’s hero, is no longer in a mood to hear it. “That’s Vietnam music,” he snarls. “Can’t we get our own fucking music?”

Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal) has his own complicated relationship to the Vietnam legacy. He’s the son of a vet, a third-generation enlistee who “got lost on the way to college” and has only one idea for his life: to measure up to his dad. Which means “getting a kill.” That’s the chimera that sustains him through the horrors of boot camp, the rigors of sniper training, the indignities of desert life: He wants to experience the thrill of taking a life.

He doesn’t realize—any more than his buddies do—that somebody changed the rules, that Operation Desert Storm will be, by design, an air war, marked by “surgical” strikes that inflict the most casualties at the least cost. With Patriots and Scuds flying overhead, the defiantly low-tech Marine Corps has suddenly become as obsolete as the cavalry. In one particularly revealing sequence, Swoff and his buddy Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) are just about to pick off a Republican Guardsman in his bunker when a brutish senior officer (Dennis Haysbert, enjoying a welcome break from probity) calls them off in favor of a squadron of attack planes, which vaporize the entire bunker in a matter of seconds.

Jarhead, adapted from Anthony Swofford’s memoir, is about what happens when killing machines can’t find anyone to kill. And if the idea of making a combat-free combat movie might seem a little quixotic, it’s also more compelling than you might expect, thanks in part to Mendes’ rich and kinetic sense of imagery (surprising in a director rooted in the theater). With the help of Roger Deakins’ agile camera, he plunges us right into the heart of the Marine madness—the kind of crazily mythic world in which branding your buddy can be the ultimate act of love. And Mendes understands as well the importance of stepping back. When the retreating Iraqis set off oil-well fires, you can feel the movie pausing in wonder as the night skies turn to freakish day and a white Arabian horse wanders through, disoriented and oil-drenched and doomed.

A movie about Marines needs an ensemble as tight as any platoon, and Mendes has obliged here, too, with a crackerjack cast. As the most loyal of the Jarheads, Sarsgaard wrings the widest possible range of feeling from an affectless voice and half-dead eyes. (With the exception of John Malkovich, I can’t think of another major actor who is, at first meeting, so inexpressive.) Lucas Black and Chris Cooper discover fresh notes as, respectively, a skeptical recruit and a rugged motivator. The part of the drill sergeant with a heart of gold is a hoary one, to say the least, but Jamie Foxx slips into the regulation boots of Lou Gossett Jr. with no sign of strain, bringing a musical cadence to his profanity-laden spiels.

Still, the movie’s centerpiece is, properly, Gyllenhaal, a likable and attractive actor who has never shown quite this depth and pitch of abandon. In what might be called the Charlie Sheen role, he has to overcome the double burden of being both the audience’s and the author’s surrogate. He also has to negotiate the film’s most harrowing scene: Pent up with rage, frustrated by inaction, Swoff swings his rifle toward a fellow Marine and, as his hysteria mounts, points it finally at himself. Anything, he seems to be saying, I’ll kill anything. Gyllenhaal’s unaffected boyishness makes this descent into insanity even more riveting. It’s as if he’s carrying America’s own dream of innocence down the drain with him.

Sequences in Jarhead echo a long red line of soldier stories—everything from Battle Cry and An Officer and a Gentleman to Full Metal Jacket and Platoon. And although Mendes and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. manage to stake out their own postmodern bivouac, they also run into problems that their predecessors never had to face. Precisely because Jarhead lacks the explosive catharsis we expect from a war flick, it doesn’t wind down so easily, and the film’s concluding section, with Swoff and his buddies matriculating back into civilian life, is by far its weakest. For the first time, Mendes applies a romantic lacquer to the Marine experience, and the closing tableau of Jarheads gathered round a comrade’s coffin seems, like much of Operation Desert Storm, an attempt to claim war’s glory without going to war.

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