“Jarhead” is slang for a United States Marine, drawing a connection between the closely shaven head of a Marine and an empty container. However, the film “Jarhead” does little to reinforce this connection, but instead tentatively explores a battered psyche through one Marine’s experiences in basic training and the stagnation he felt in the First Persian Gulf War.

Based on an autobiography with the same name, Anthony Swofford, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is a 20-year-old, third generation U.S. Marine. Much of the movie sets up his psychological instability and the resulting effects. A flashback in the beginning of the film quickly shows the familial devastation caused by his father’s service in Vietnam.

In basic training, Swofford is repeatedly hit in the head by his drill instructor but stands up to him saying, “Sir, I got lost on the way to college, sir!” For his insubordination, Swofford is assigned to the company of Staff Sergeant Sykes, played by Jamie Foxx. Next to Gyllenhaal, Foxx has some of the most powerful lines in the movie, and he has no trouble taking on the stereotypical role of a level-headed, goal-oriented sergeant.

Throughout “Jarhead,” there is a huge buildup in the minds of Swofford and the rest of his accompanying Marines concerning the impending combat. Nearing the end of the movie, Swofford says with exasperation, “Are we ever going to get to kill anyone?” The troops have expectations for battle, their aggression has been reinforced, they are trained to kill and are itching for action.

The voice-overs reinforce Swofford’s psychological battles and are some of the most insightful aspects of the movie.

In one such voice-over Swofford says, “For most problems, the Marine is issued a solution. If ill, go to sickbay. If wounded, call corpsman. If dead, report to graves registration. If losing his mind, however, no standard solution exists.”

Gyllenhaal does a good job portraying Swofford’s emotional travels. His lines are well delivered and his voice-overs stay with the viewer. In his role in “Donnie Darko,” Gyllenhaal showed his ability to play someone almost totally disconnected from reality – an ability that was once again called upon in “Jarhead.”

Yet for all that is built up in Swofford’s head explicitly and implicitly, there is never a verbose cathartic scene. The dialogue in “Jarhead” falls just short. The movie is plagued by short cursory scenes, in which the dialogue seemed idealized and at some points forced. Only in a few instances were the character’s sentiments revealed through words as opposed to actions.

But the unimaginative dialogue did not ruin the movie – rather its void left room for the viewer to focus on the stunning cinematography. The still shots at the beginning of most scenes were extended and beautiful. Surreal images like the Kuwaiti oil fields ablaze created and contextualized many of Swofford’s emotions.

A voiceover quote serves as bookends for the movie. “But no matter what his hands might do, they still remember the rifle.” In the beginning, these lines serve to foreshadow the impending combat of a movie about a war. It speaks of how killing a man changes you. Yet, in the end of the movie, this meaning has changed, as it is evident that one does not need to kill in order for their disposition to change.

Rudolph can be reached at drudolph@campustimes.org.

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