Nowhere Men

JarheadJarhead is many things, but a war picture is pretty far down the list.

First things first: Sam Mendes, the director, is a subversive, anxious for some reason to tell Americans about America, which is really not such a terrible thing as some of our best reflections come from overseas, whether via Nabokov or the Rolling Stones, aping and reshaping our sense of ourselves.

American Beauty, his first picture, had some delightful moments, but was still nothing more than a Zap Comix view of suburbia--it could have been scored by ’60s-era Zappa. (Funny, though, that Weeds and Desperate Housewives and the rest all seem to be telling us things we learned back when, and that things have changed little in the ’burbs since then. But I digress.)

Road to Perdition, which followed, was actually based on an underground-ish graphic novel. It was a literate Depression-era boy-and-his-killer-dad gangster pastiche, but although it had its moments, like American Beauty, it was overrated.

Jarhead is Mendes’ third shot across the water, but in fact it drags us back to the desert--the desert of Camus and Bowles and Antonioni’s recently re-released The Passenger.

It’s the big ol’ metaphoric void, and those who know little about the picture might not have read that this is the one war film where there is no fighting; the battles, such as they are, are all internal. Training and Nothingness.

“I see it as an existential war movie, where so much of the tone and mood of the movie is dictated by the desert, which is reductive, which makes you into a dot, in the vast nothingness. There’s something Beckettian about the landscape,” says Mendes.

Here is a group of young dudes who have already had their souls tested by being abused and reconstructed in basic training, the Full Metal Jacketeria, going for their graduate degrees in sheer tortured ennui. Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx, the three stars, are portraying grunts stuck in Nowheresville, in psychic quicksand, itching for a kill or a fight or something to give them some vacuous sense of themselves, even if that means ripping holes in their hearts in senseless carnage. They’re actually looking for a dose of post-traumatic stress.

In many ways Jarhead is a prisoner-of-war film, but the prison is without walls or guards or tunnels. And the characters exit the picture hardly more defined than they were when we first met them.

How terribly sad that, as Jarhead author Anthony Swofford tells us, he still lives, years later, with his trigger finger itchy and his gun half-cocked. He’s still in Palookaville, waiting for a mission.

Like his earlier two films, Mendes has given us a movie more interesting for his ideas than execution. That’s not really so terrible, but anybody looking for a statement about war or politics or the Middle East will not find it here.

Rather, the movie is more like a prequel to some more eventful film, some dramatic afterword, which can be found in Swofford’s novel. But Mendes has stripped the book of even a hint of catharsis, even the dumb, crummy kind typical of war films.

Jarhead is, finally, an exercise in futility, which is exactly what it’s designed to be. - Henry Cabot Beck

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Henry Beck

Mr. Beck straddles the coasts, contributing features on movies, music, books, comics and other cultural objects to the New York Daily News and many other publications.

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