Although Sam Mendes doesn't make many movies, when he does make one it is almost guaranteed to be a masterpiece. Jarhead is no exception. Drastically different from his last two films, Road to Perdition and American Beauty, Jarhead brings the intensity of Full Metal Jacket and combines it with Mendes near perfect story telling and visual styles. Based upon the memoir of the same name written by Anthony Swafford (Gyllenhaal's character) the film takes a realistic look into military life, showing the ups and downs, the homesickness and most of all the waiting. Perhaps only Sam Mendes could make a war film that not only is not about war, but that does not have one battle, not one shot fired by the ground troops. This film is a film about people. People that are placed in some of the most difficult situations imaginable.
As can be expected from Mendes, the acting and directing is brilliant. Jake Gyllenhaul gives the performance of his career. The spectrum of emotions his character goes through runs parallel to the ways the audience feels about him, loving him one moment and shocked the next. Accompanying Gyllenhaal is one of the best up and coming actors today, Peter Sarsgaard. Playing an equally complex character, Sarsgaard is the voice of reason (if there is such a thing) for much of the film before also falling victim to the insanity of war. Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard's relationship is incredibly real and spontaneous. They are supported by strong performances by Jamie Foxx and Chris Cooper. Foxx continues to prove that he is not a fluke, he is the real thing and one of the best actors in Hollywood. Foxx's character brings an unusual amount of compassion to the typically portrayed straight-nosed, hard-assed staff sergeant character. Foxx is not any different than the men he leading.
Jarhead also is blessed by some of the best cinematography of the year. Roger Deakins, who is filling the large shoes of Mendes usual ace cinematographer, the late Conrad Hall, produces some of the most striking war film visuals ever before seen. Deakins and Mendes work in tandem to bring the tension and emotions of the characters, not to mention the desert heat to the screen. One of the first desert shots for example is an amazing shot of a long line of trucks driving towards the camera with the blazing heat separating them from the camera. Also incredible is the cinematography in the later burning oil fields sequence, which like it does with the characters, encloses the audience in the suffocating atmosphere. Another shot to mention is the last one, which swivels around Gyllenhaal while he looks out a window at his house. As the camera moves, the scene Gyllenhaal is looking at changes, transitioning flawlessly back into the desert he just left. It perfectly emphasizes one of the films major themes, that the pain and hardship of war will last with a soldier forever, he will never forget what happened.
Jarhead is a demonstration of Sam Mendes' versatility as a filmmaker, and his position as one of the best directors in Hollywood. Although Jarhead might not win best picture, it should be remembered as a reinvention of the war genre, a focus not on the fighting itself, but on the most vital part of a war, the soldiers themselves.
Now coming to DVD, Jarhead boasts 35 minutes of deleted scenes, interviews, commentaries and your normal special features. Frankly, this is a DVD you're going to buy for the movie - if you were one of the people who actually liked it - and not for anything else. The deleted scenes are pretty good but not spectacular, as you might expect.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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