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Originally published Friday, November 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Jarhead": Inside heads of Marines waiting for action

"Jarhead," based on Anthony Swofford's best-selling Gulf War memoir, is not so much about war as about waiting for war, and about the...

Seattle Times movie critic

"Jarhead," based on Anthony Swofford's best-selling Gulf War memoir, is not so much about war as about waiting for war, and about the impact that waiting has on a not-yet-formed young man. Jake Gyllenhaal, head shaved and eyes frightened, is Swoff, who "got lost on the way to college" and became a Marine in 1990. After training, he's quickly on a plane to Saudi Arabia, wondering how long he'll be there. Two weeks, says somebody confidently. Not exactly.

Once in the desert, weeks stretch into months, and Swoff and his cohorts play football (in 112-degree heat), mourn the women left behind and keep themselves in shape by jogging across the sands in heavy gear while they wait for something to happen. And for a long time in this movie, nothing does. Lulled along by director Sam Mendes' meticulous pace and Roger Deakins' bleached-out, almost sunburned cinematography, we become part of Swoff's unit and wait with them, becoming increasingly invested in these men's fates. "Jarhead" is often a film about boredom, but it's never boring; full of unexpected touches and detailed character turns.

Movie review 3 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Jarhead," with Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Lucas Black, Brian Geraghty, Jacob Vargas, Chris Cooper, Dennis Haysberg, Jamie Foxx. Directed by Sam Mendes, from a screenplay by William Broyles Jr., based on the book by Anthony Swofford. 115 minutes. Rated R for pervasive language, some violent images and strong sexual content. Several theaters.

Mendes, working from a screenplay by William Broyles Jr., takes us on the up-and-down swoop of the men's emotions: We watch them singing riotously along to "Ride of the Valkyries" as they watch a special screening of "Apocalypse Now," hitting up the flight attendants on the plane to the desert, making elaborate drama from gladiator-type scorpion fights, and getting drunk on a disorderly, raucous Christmas Eve in their tents. They rarely question their purpose there — of the film's few brushes with politics is a sequence when journalists arrive at the camp, and Staff Sgt. Sykes (a fast-talking Jamie Foxx) gives the men scripted lines to deliver. "You're a Marine," he says. "There's no such thing as speech that is free."

Instead, the story takes place inside those well-shaved heads (the title, a nickname for Marines, derives from the shape of the traditional haircut), particularly Swoff's, a frustrated boy-man who's trained to kill, but isn't getting the opportunity. When combat finally arises — for a couple of days — he's desperate to prove himself, and the film is momentarily reduced to one tight-focus shot of a finger, curled around a trigger. Gyllenhaal, a gifted actor whose natural boyishness is a perfect fit here, lets us see Swoff's inner torment; the gradual realization that what is happening here is changing him forever.

"Jarhead" is often mesmerizing and strangely beautiful; Mendes, as he showed in "Road to Perdition" and "American Beauty," has an eye for striking images. Deakins' shots of the desert's mysteriously shimmering, lunar-like surface (seared black after a bomb blast, with eerie white footprints) haunt us, just as the memories haunt Swoff in the film's coda. This is a story of creating distraction to ward off fear of the unknown, of making a home in a place that's unwelcoming. "Inside of our circus," writes Swoff, "we cannot be injured."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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