American Beauty is what it is—I can’t seem to muster bile anywhere comparable to that of many of my colleagues for it, perhaps because I still can’t quite explain how it was that Mendes managed to drop kiddie porn (thanks to Jonathan Rosenbaum for this call) into the marketplace and have it mistaken for high art. We’re not that dumb, right? I mean, Pete Townshend got banged in the privacy of his own home for acts probably less obscene than what Mendes’s camera commits upon the persons of Thora Birch and Mena Suvari. A few years on, and excepting Chris Cooper, American Beauty seems less the start of a beautiful friendship than the biggest career-killer in recent memory. (Sam paid it forward) Why get upset about a blip receding in the distance when Todd Solondz still stalks an Earth full of so much beauty?
So Mendes returns after Road to Perdition (which I missed) with Jarhead, an apolitical war film about snipers waiting to fight in the first Gulf War that’s so filled with events that it’s wholly impossible to buy into the central idea: That the interminable desert days and the lack of “kills” mandated and promised by their training are driving these young murderers over the edge. In a movie like this, central scenes shouldn’t involve receiving letters or being punished—we should be in the shit staring at sand, or watching others stare at it. The whole thing’s so ludicrous that when Peter Sarsgaard stands up from digging his sleephole/grave to proclaim his realization of the obsolescence of humans in warfare, the “bold” attempt at a thesis statement is obvious, and laughable, and, well, not really supported by the movie. Honestly, Stealth gets at this idea better. Shakespeare could have crystallized a whole play around a monologue like this, but then he would’ve had a play worth watching in the first place. This is Mendes—a theatre-Brit, but no Shakespeare—and all he’s got is Jake Gyllenhaal dancing with a Santa hat hanging off his crotch.
To be fair, Sam does have a handful of good images up his sleeve: soldiers playing football in full chemical war gear, a horse emerging from the cataclysmic darkness surrounding a raging oil fire coated with the stuff (sure, its overdetermined and the fires are probably CG, but I like to think he’s nodding in Tarkovsky’s direction). But in a movie where men lessen the tensions sprung from their inability to kill Iraqis or fuck girlfriends back home (who they all worry are fucking someone else) by pretending to fuck each other, and this heavy, heavy homoeroticism is just left on the table…what the hell is going on? I’d mention the "choice" early 90s soundtrack, or the general sense of, “make it pretty and no one will notice that we’ve got nothing going on,” but why bother?