“Full Metal Jacket” – (1987) – dir. Stanley Kubrick – starring Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey
This is one of those aforementioned movies that I am mildly embarrassed to have never seen. I am not a big war film buff, but there a few I know I need to see. This being one of them. Kubrick is with a doubt one of the best directors in cinema, but he still only hits with me half the time. His direction is never under question, but the movies themselves are sometimes not my cup of tea.
This was one of them, but it was still an amazing ride.
The first half, a look into the horrors of boot camp, mind games, conditioning, and the government using human’s need for pride to turn them into killing machines is hard to watch. Young men that will gladly rip out their own guts and eat them for their country and ask for seconds, was wrenching, to say the least.
R. Lee Ermey as Sergeant Harman is astounding. I am amazed he didn’t have a coronary on set by playing that part. It looked hard but effortless for him. He was the embodiment of that awful human being. Even better still than Ermey’s portrayal was D’Onofrio’s Private Pyle. What a character. Vincent D’Onofrio has never been in a film that he does not steal the show in, and this is the one that assuredly made his career. Hartman’s treatment of Private Pyle is inhuman. The evil vomit that spews from the Gunnery Sergeant’s mouth is an act of violence. Racist, bigoted, horrible emotional violence. It works. If anything can wear a human’s soul to dust, it is weeks of physical and emotional abuse from the country you stand tall to defend.
The second half of the film, the wartime part, lost me a little. The sets were gorgeous, the action well-choreographed, the emotional scenes are done well. And maybe it’s because so many of these lines are so ingrained in society (or at least film buff society) but they feel trite by now. I may have just waited too long. The multiple scenes with the prostitutes didn’t bring anything emotionally to the film, and these scenes are actually the most dialogue in the second half of the movie. I really enjoyed watching Joker and his photographer Rafterman moving through the Vietnam war covering what was happening for the news, but I wish we had gotten more reporting of what was happening. It made sense that a lot of the war was men hanging out and hiding behind burned buildings and making sexual innuendo to each other, I mean, who wouldn’t. It almost seemed like a given, and they didn’t stick to any one conversation enough to make it feel real. I wish they had stuck with one or two locations or kept moving throughout the whole of the landscape.
I loved Kubrick’s choice to use sweeping and steady shots back and forth of the camera to show the actors working in the environment, instead of that war movie editing you get with quick cuts and jerky motion. We didn’t need that jarring effect here. He was lingering, leaving you to see the wonderful choreography and specific marks to make clean lines, depth of field, and show the beautiful production design. I bet these action sequences took forever to film, knowing anything about Kubrick’s predilection for perfection.
The plot and theme don’t need a whole lot of diving here. There’s not much to it, but it’s all you need. It’s a slice of life story, not a grand sweeping epic of wartime like “Doctor Zhivago” and not of one singular moment or turning point like “Dunkirk”. It’s a movie quite literally in two halves. It’s well done and slick.
The two standout scenes for me are the final scene with D’Onofrio’s Private Pyle and the sniper scene at the end of the film. These two scenes will stick with me because of what they represent, and they are represented by only a “look” given by the two actors in each scene. The first, Pyle’s final face of complete madness after being pushed to the brink during basic training. They accomplished what they wanted, they created a killer, but not the kind they were aiming for. They created a monster, one that couldn’t be stopped. The second scene with Modine’s Joker after he stops the Vietnamese sniper in the building. Earlier in the film, they talk of him not getting to see any action because he doesn’t have “the stare”. That thousand-mile stare that so many vets came home with after seeing too much action. Throughout the film, Joker seemed fine with that. He didn’t want that killer instinct, didn’t need to feel like he would kill for country. In the end, it’s the exact look he received anyway. No one gets out unscathed.