“I’m in a world of shit… yes. But I am alive. And I am not afraid.”
Watching Lolita a few days back reminded me that there are still a few Kubrick films I have yet to see. Full Metal Jacket is one of the more iconic works from the man himself, so I figured I’d finally check it out. I really didn’t know much about this movie coming in aside from all the famous clips of the drill sergeant (played by R. Lee Ermey) yelling at the soldiers. This led me to expect a lighter sort of film, but what I got was a pretty dark commentary on the human cost of war and the nature of war itself. Full Metal Jacket is a harrowing story that caught me completely off guard, but it was so well done that I was on board for the whole thing.
The movie is split into two halves which are strikingly different from each other. The first half focuses on the basic training of a set of Marine recruits. This is what the movie is famous for, R. Lee Ermey giving a stunning performance as Sergeant Hartman. The story behind this one is pretty cool because Ermey was an actual Marine drill sergeant who asked Kubrick to audition for the role and blew away the competition. He ended up improvising a large portion of the lines, which are some of the most quotable in the whole Kubrick canon. The first 45 minutes or so get into some dark territory as Hartman breaks down the spirit of an inadequate recruit who he nicknames Gomer Pyle (played by Vincent d’Onofrio,) but the last scene of the first act is really where it all hits the fan. This is certainly among the most terrifying scenes I have witnessed in a movie, and it sets the tone for the second act to come. I won’t spoil it here because you’ve got to see this one for yourself. It’s some really dark stuff.
The second act focuses on the Vietnam War itself as Private “Joker” (Matthew Modine) from the first act serves as a military journalist on deployment in the war zone. This is where the whole thing makes some unique narrative choices. The storytelling jumps around, focusing mostly on Joker but also his comrades in the military. One part that I found really enlightening is where the movie takes a sort of documentary style and interviews many of the soldiers about the war. Some men don’t see the point of the fighting in Vietnam and are only there because they feel it’s where they belong. There are conflicting reasons for why the men enlisted in the first place, and every character in the second act has a unique perspective on the war. The writing is really strong in this whole part, and most of the commentary about war comes in this second half. I feel like Act One was really about the breakdown of the individual, and Act Two is about something bigger, the individual’s place in something out of their control. I absolutely love how Joker wears the peace sign button on his uniform while “Born to Kill” is written on his helmet. When questioned about it, he reveals himself to be a really complex character. Kubrick refuses to pull punches with this movie, asking all kinds of insightful questions about the consequences of war.
I was a bit thrown off by the structure of the movie at first, and I planned to say that I didn’t really like how mashed up it all seems. But on reflection, I really don’t have a problem with the two acts. Maybe there could have been some smoother connection between them, and it really does feel like two different short films, but it’s all tied together enough where I still think it’s effective. Apparently Kubrick took some real deliberations when adapting the source material (the novel The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford) in terms of what to emphasize and what to hardly touch on. This is to be expected, though, as Kubrick has often demonstrated that he is telling his own story with these movies, and the novels are often just a jumping off point or a loose framework. Maybe the structure isn’t the strongest part of the film, but it’s still interesting.
Technically, Kubrick yet again demonstrates masterful skill as a director. I’m always impressed by how straight forward the camerawork can be, but it still feels so intrusive and powerful. Directors like Tarantino and Scorsese are great at using fancy film tricks to astound the viewer, but Kubrick just throws everything down in such an honest way. Instead of just a “fun” movie, a Stanley Kubrick film feels important above all else. There’s a lot of passion on screen, and I’m still trying to examine the technique behind all of it. He makes it look easy, and for that, he is one of the greats.
If you’ve never seen Full Metal Jacket, trust me that it is much more than a silly movie about how being in the military sucks. It’s a pretty dark one, and Kubrick doesn’t seem to provide a lot of answers. I feel like the closest thing we get to some kind of main point is in the very last section of the movie. It’s the final scene in which Joker has to decide what kind of person he’s going to be as a result of all this, a really dark moment where we finally see the 1000 Yard Stare in his eyes and it all seems to come full circle. I’m typically hard to impress when it comes to these climactic moments in a movie, but Full Metal Jacket really got to me. I was really loving this movie by the end. It’s a powerful story with ideas worth examining, and if you haven’t seen it, I would really implore you to do so.
Films Left to Watch: 966