The film’s strong suit is vagueness, presenting combat as a semi-surreal state of ignorant expectation and dislocated experience: these warriors loll in the desert awaiting action or trying to make sense of its consequences. The character of ‘Swoff’ himself is similarly but less satisfyingly blurred, veering from quasi-intellectual outsider to bloodthirsty grunt to upright company man without gelling into a convincing whole.
Based on the real-life Swofford’s memoirs, ‘Jarhead’’s setting might be more inescapably real than the heightened ’burbs of ‘…Beauty’ or ‘…Perdition’’s comic-book underworld, but Mendes’s approach is as prettifying as ever: ’Nam-era flashbacks play out in super-saturated faux-16mm; oil-wells gush flame-light across the flank of a bloodied horse, which stumbles across the frame as if seeking refuge from a Guinness ad. Editor Walter Murch (‘Apocalypse Now’) and DoP Roger Deakins’ work is superb, but it throws a glossy cast across a story whose strength lies in its bottom-up perspective and jars with the firmly apolitical tone: apart from a few caustic asides about oil and censorship there’s barely a glance at life outside the barracks, let alone contemporary resonance. The charred remnants of an Iraqi refugee convoy appear to us as they do to Swoff’s platoon: an unsettling, weirdly beautiful visitation that might as well have beamed down from the moon.
Cast and crew