#9 in my Ranking of Stanley Kubrick films.
I can imagine myself in a few years wondering, “What did I think of that one movie?” I would pull up the blog, do a quick search, find the review, and be refreshed with my attempts at insight. My opinion that day would be reinforced by the opinion I had years back. Full Metal Jacket, though, is a film that I am always certain will have changes of opinion over time. Out of all the films that I have reviewed so far, this is the one that I feel like I could review again in a year and come to very different conclusions.
I’ve seen this film four times, and I’m still coming to terms with it. I’ve moved beyond the idea that the first forty-five minutes are a mini-movie and wholly superior to the final seventy minutes. I still think that the first section of the film on Parris Island is superior to the second long section that ends the film, but there’s definitely a deeper relationship between the Private Joker character. There are themes and motifs at play in the first half that continue into the second. I just can’t quite get past a few things that hamper the whole experience for me.
The events on Parris Island are both hilarious and horrifying, often at the same time. A group of marine recruits goes through basic training, and we latch onto two of the largely interchangeable maggots as main character, Private Joker and Private Pyle. These are, of course, not their real names, but the nicknames stick. They are robbed of who they were before walking onto the island. There’s that dehumanization idea that keeps popping up in Kubrick’s filmography. The process of training strips even the interior individuality so that they all become alike in behavior, marching perfectly in time, performing the same actions, and reacting the same way to their drill instructor.
Our two main characters have different paths to this sameness. Joker is smart and thoughtful which allows him to navigate the minefield of the instructor’s verbal jabs in ways that do him credit, eventually getting him the position of squad leader. Pyle, on the other hand, is stupid (not pejoratively, mind you, Pyle is obviously supposed to have an IQ of less than 90) and has incredible difficulty adapting to life in the corps. He has trouble telling his left from his right. He can’t master the obstacle course. He hides jelly donuts in his footlocker. It is only after Joker is forced to take Pyle under his wing that Pyle begins to shape up, turning the corner in his training, and eventually going way too far in the other direction. He becomes the ultimate psychotic killing machine, putting a round into the drill instructor’s chest after graduation before shooting himself in the head.
Just from a cinematic experience point of view, this first forty-five minutes is a tour de force. It’s nearly impressionistic and heavily reliant on editing to create the general sense of unease that pulls us in as we watch the humanity stripped so completely from Pyle to the point that he does only kill.
The second section ends up feeling both more straight forward cinematically and more confused narratively, which can create a certain letdown from a movie going point of view. However, as I wrote earlier, there are stronger connections between the two sections that my first viewings of the film originally revealed to me.
Animal Mother, for instance, seems like another version of Pyle. He seems pretty dim the first time we meet him, but he’s also obviously a great killing machine. Knowing that the movie ends with Joker leading the survivors of the film in a rendition of the theme song to “The Mickey Mouse Club House”, I began considering what that could mean more than an hour before it came up, and the idea of infantilization creeped into my brain. I began to watch as a group of children lost every parental figure they had (starting with the drill instructor) until they were faced with a great life or death situation without any guidance from a higher authority. There are also signs of the breakdown of all civilization in the face of war, an idea so big I’m not sure it fits terribly well in only seventy-minutes of screentime.
And that’s where I end up. I feel like this second half is simply tackling too much. Breakdown, though, is a great lens to view it through. Joker starts this section negotiating with a hooker for her time, playfully joking with her. That attitude extends through his meetings with his CO as a reporter for Stars and Stripes. His life is easy hidden away in Saigon. He can talk big about his time in the shit and no one can really challenge him. It’s when the Tet Offensive begins that his veneer of bravery breaks down and he starts shooting maniacally at a small invading force. He then gets sent out into the field to document some of the counter action.
It’s about here that I feel the movie just begins to break down itself narratively. From the time Joker is reunited with his mate from Parris Island (Private Cowboy) to the time that their squad leader dies in the final city, the movie kind of just swirls around without a real direction. There’s marching and everyone talks big about nothing in particular. It’s more of a dick measuring contest than anything else, and it culminates in another scene about a hooker as the men negotiate with her pimp and then jockey for who gets her first. As a contrast to the first hooker scene, Joker has little to say or do here. He’s no longer standing out, and he’s been pushed more to the background. Much like in Parris Island, he’s more of one of several than an individual again.
From purely a filmmaking perspective, the final thirty minutes, as the squad gets pinned down by a hidden sniper in a building, might be as good as the movie’s first forty-five minutes. This stuff is really well filmed with clear action, a great outdoor set, smoke, and fire. It’s tense as the squad watches several of their comrades take repeated sniper fire, mortally wounding them but not killing them, and the rest find a way around the sniper’s position. It’s a great sustained sequence that ends with the reveal that the sniper is a young girl, a wonderful point of irony to cap off the movie that’s pretty steeped in it.
Some more technical notes real quick. It’s screamingly obvious that this movie wasn’t filmed in Vietnam. It was filmed in England, and there’s no place in England that looks like a Vietnamese paddy field, so there are numerous shots of the countryside that looks like flat bits of England with palm trees. The giant set that ends the film is both a blessing and a curse. When the frame’s edges are filled with parts of the set, I find it completely convincing. When the edges of the frame extend out beyond the set, it once again feels like an outdoor set in the middle of England. I was also assured by my high school history teacher (who was a marine who had done three tours of duty in Vietnam) that while the yelling of the drill instructor was spot on, drill instructors would never ever strike a recruit.
So, that’s kind of where I am overall with the film. I know that the first half informs the second half, but I still haven’t quite figured out how. I think I can grasp the overall thematic thrust of the film, but I haven’t really developed it in my own head. I believe that there’s more to this movie than my first four viewings have left with me, and I’m more than willing to give the film another try in the future. But for now, I have to embrace the incongruity between the two major sections, the flaccidity of a large part of the second section, and an opaqueness that I can’t quite get through, and relegate Full Metal Jacket to the second tier of Kubrick’s filmography. Maybe when I revisit this again in a year or so, I’ll read this and build on my original thoughts instead of just repeating them. We shall see.
Netflix Rating: 4/5
Quality Rating: 3/4
Originally published here.