Jarhead (a reference to the statutory haircut for marines) is a journey into the dehumanising mechanism of war. It is about how a soldier's life becomes a game in which the pawns are beaten and twisted into becoming animals.
You are never quite sure how the quietly strong and intelligent narrator, Anthony Swafford (Jake Gyllenhaal), joined the marines, only that he "got lost on the way to college". You never really understand why most of the characters, singled out as snipers, could have ended up in the marines, and yet they are there; caught and with nothing else in their lives. Alan Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), one of the few who really wants to be there, seems nice enough and bright enough but has an edge, which you feel he could step over at any time. Fergus O'Donnell (Brian Geraghty) is a geek with wide-rimmed glasses who looks like a fish out of water. And then, on the other side, is Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx), the despotic and sadistic ruler who keeps them all in line. One thing is clear about the insanity of the set-up: "Once a Jarhead, always a Jarhead."
All of the lost souls in the film, some much nastier and dirtier than others, are searching for a meaning. Any attempt to speak about politics, or question the motivation behind their actions, is silenced. It needs to be silenced, or the rigmarole crumbles away to show the true face of the beast which they belong to. Jarhead shows that after 120 days in the desert, too much testosterone in the atmosphere and constant aggressive training, these soldiers start lusting for a kill. Just one kill would give them their long desired meaning.
It is impossible to credit Jarhead without mentioning Apocalypse Now. Jarhead drinks from the frenzied, surreal atmosphere of Conrad's novel and Coppola's adaptation. It even tributes the film directly, not only in a screening of the film which the soldiers watch, but direct references, for example, to its classic helicopter scene. And yet Jarhead is a war film which defies all the rules of war films. No one gets to shoot at the enemy, no one fights in heroic battles and no one goes back with any stories. There is nothing gratuitous in any of its 125-minute runtime, except maybe for some visually stunning shots. And even most of those allow the film to transport you to a strange place where the only beauty you will find is when the earth bleeds oil and fire.
In my opinion, the film ought to have ended with the scene on the bus as the marines return home, and that the next few snapshots which give a glimpse of "what happened next" are an unnecessary pandering to American-cinema's need for easy narrative. The returning Jarheads are joined by a war-torn Vietnam veteran whose desperate gaze shows the scars of yet another war. This "last" scene makes Jarhead more than just an attack against the first gulf war, it is also about people not learning. It is about the cycles of war, about man's capacity to create and crawl into infernos. Again and again.
Jarhead, based on the memoirs written by the real-life marine Anthony Swafford, is a horrific journey into a blinding world where mind and senses are forced to an extreme, and where you watch people loose touch with reality and human values. Jake Gyllenhaal shows his capacity as an actor, though his voiceover is much weaker than his performance, and the rest of the acting is strong enough. Sam Mendes' direction is brilliant and the cinematography is simply breathtaking (and beautifully nauseating).