by David Denby
In a ruined city, beneath gray skies dimmed by greasy black smoke, men die without reason or sense. Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam movie, Full Metal Jacket, is bleakly discomforting and remorseless—a punishing load of despair and incomprehension. There’s no jungle here, no lush green, no swamp or rice paddy. Death is out in the open, just as it was in World War II, yet it has reclaimed none of its glory.
Young Marines make futile, quasi-absurdist remarks (“They took away our freedom and gave it to the gookers”; “I wanted to meet interesting, stimulating people from an ancient culture—and kill them”). Then the men get blown up by a booby-trapped doll or picked off by snipers. Plotless, and virtually characterless, Full Metal Jacket is about men drowning (as they keep saying) in “a world of shit.”
It’s not a political work, nor is it sympathetic to American or Vietnamese suffering. Which is hardly a surprise. From the evidence of Kubrick’s later films, the soul of this hermit-filmmaker has turned cold as a winter graveyard. The chill wind whistling around the headstones could be heard throughout 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and The Shining.
No one in his right mind could mistake Kubrick for a humanist. In Full Metal Jacket, the writer-director seems to be trying for a black comedy of death. To use a phrase of Michael Herr’s (from his classic book of Vietnam War reporting, Dispatches), Kubrick is death-enthralled. He mounts a gigantic production to demonstrate that in Vietnam death wipes out meaning. Or rather: The meaning of Vietnam is that it meant nothing. But can this be true? Can this sentiment be anything but attitude—death-enthralled chic?
Kubrick, Herr, and Gustav Hasford have adapted Hasford’s posturing little novel, The Short-Timers. Structurally, the movie is bizarre, a failed experiment that makes one aware of how conventional other movies are—and of why those conventions are necessary. It begins with a stunning 45-minute prologue, a Marine-boot-camp sequence that is perhaps the most outrageous piece of filmmaking in Kubrick’s entire career. At Parris Island, South Carolina, a bunch of recruits, their heads shaved, dressed only in skivvies, stand vulnerable before the blows and abuse of their drill instructor. He is their master. Their young bodies belong to him. There’s an element of open eroticism in the DI’s dominating assaults. He’s the only one allowed to be a hard-on. They are “ladies,” “queers,” “maggots”; they are feminized, robotized, screwed. He says to them (in effect), “By submitting to me, you will become men.” And they believe him.
This erect military madman—Gunnery Sergeant Hartman—is played by ex-Marine Lee Ermey, a mesmerizing nonactor who has thick eyebrows, bulging, unblinking eyes, and an iron voice. Ermey gives a rigid and clamorous performance, utterly without shading, that will stand as a kind of nutty classic. Ramrod straight, with a flat-brimmed Smokey the Bear hat that could razor your nose, Ermey’s Sergeant Hartman is a violent and treacherous man with an astounding fluency in all the varieties of tirade. Do you dare laugh at him? No matter how the men respond, he throws their words back at them, crushing the recruits with the exultant din of his contempt. And unlike, say, Lou Gossett Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman, Hartman isn’t secretly benevolent. He brutalizes the men because he wants to turn out killers for the Marine Corps—and because he enjoys it. Happily malevolent, he’s an inspired and profane ideologue of war, controlling his men, then releasing them to kill and die. In the end, he is not their protector and friend but their executioner.
Hartman is unrelenting—the 45 minutes are one long, obscene harangue— and Kubrick supports the glaring tone of the DI’s rage with harsh, bleached-out light and punishingly tight close-ups. The boot-camp episode, which could be an experimental filmmaker’s riff on militarism as psychosis, is undeniably entertaining—so oddly single-minded and overconcentrated that it’s hideously funny. But it’s also morally repellent. Kubrick has at last achieved the image of complete control he was straining for in such earlier attempts as the reprogramming sequence in A Clockwork Orange. He’s arrived at the desensitized heart of the twentieth century, the robot farm. But the tip-off that he doesn’t really hate this mind-body rape, that he’s digging it at some level, is the ugly way he photographs the victims.
Except for a couple of tiny, barely articulate exchanges, Kubrick won’t allow the men to talk to one another, and he lets only two of them become individuals at all: the sweet-faced Joker (Matthew Modine), who shows some signs of independent intelligence, and the fat, ugly, and hapless recruit whom Hartman bullies and calls Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio). As Hartman hounds Pyle without mercy, Kubrick uses the camera to destroy D’Onofrio. Flabby, shapeless, his eyes rolling back under a heavy brow, D’Onofrio, from our first glance at him, looks cretinous, and then, as he’s tormented more and more, he turns into a horror-film psycho with curling lips—a weirdo. Pyle suffers; we laugh uneasily. In the end, when Pyle becomes the perfect product of Hartman’s training—a moronic murderer who takes revenge— we’re titillated rather than upset. Pyle is a sick joke; the whole gigantic sequence is a sick joke. And the joke doesn’t seem worthy of the philosophical weight that is suspended from it.
A mood of nihilistic farce takes hold: Full Metal Jacket is a callous movie about callousness. I’m aware, of course, that it’s not enough to say that Kubrick is a misanthrope and a nihilist, as if that alone settled the aesthetic issue. Nihilism can be a legitimate mode of art. Withdrawing from ordinary human feeling can deliver an artist into a stylized view of behavior that shocks and revives. That is the achievement of artists as diverse as Céline, Beckett, Buñuel, and Arbus; that is also the promise of Kubrick’s temperament, and he delivered on that promise in Dr. Strangelove and in parts of 2001. But I don’t think he’s done it here.
Matthew Modine’s Joker is the only character to survive into the next section. But who is Joker? A Marine reporter for Stars & Stripes, he wanders around the Da Nang air base making sarcastic remarks. He’s neither pro-war nor antiwar. A cipher, then. In any case, not a protagonist, a character who can hold a movie together (and Kubrick, for all his gassing in the Times about getting the right story, doesn’t have one). Joker drifts up to Phú Bài and then to Hue, where he joins a combat unit.
Joker s drifting provides Kubrick with an excuse to present random dismal impressions of the war. Physically, everything is larger than life, with huge sets (the movie was shot in England) featuring artfully disarranged piles of rubble and cratered buildings moldering under chalky skies. The movie has the sterile clarity of photo-realist art, powerful and cold. We seem to be looking at pictures of pictures; we feel the edges of things and Kubrick vigilantly policing the edges, ruling out casual or incidental life. How odd then that this control freak should make an amorphous and incoherent movie. Any pretense of drama stops as Kubrick piles up the vignettes. People unknown to us step forward, make one sardonic or absurd remark, and disappear. Vietnam—crazy, man! There’s a Marine machine-gunning Vietnamese peasants from a helicopter window; a Strangelovian officer making a ludicrous speech to Joker about “getting on the winning team”; mean little Vietnamese whores sticking out their hips. Kubrick gives us a dozen or more fragments of the immense tragedy, but with the responses and meanings contemptuously cut off. Trying to be far out, he just seems out of it.
In one scene, the corpses of executed citizens of Hue lie in neat rows, their lime-whitened bodies disturbingly beautiful. But the shock is hollow. The script barely registers that it was the North Vietnamese who executed the citizens; nor do the filmmakers link the deaths with any political force or idea. The sardonic and gruesome little bits add up to no more than an atmosphere of portentous disgust. Years after the war, Kubrick cultivates the awestruck mood of a stoned hippie exclaiming, “Hea-vy!”
When Joker links up with his boot-camp buddy, Cowboy (Arliss Howard), still another set of characters comes on— the battle-weary grunts. Tough-looking actors like Adam Baldwin, armed to the teeth, make semi-psychotic remarks into the camera, one variation or another on “I’m cool—screw you.” We get the point: These men are also the products of Hartman’s training. Hooked on war yet exhausted, they don’t give a damn about anything. They have embraced their fate, which is to perish meaninglessly. A TV crew interviews them, and we see that not one of the Marines has the slightest idea why he is fighting in Vietnam. The murderous disdain and sullen ignorance is supposed to be funny and shocking, but most of it, I thought, was hollow, show-offy. And the method is embarrassingly stiff: Kubrick pans from one man to the next, taking a single vicious comment from each. Instead of dramatizing what Vietnam did to people, he tries to impress us with how poetically wasted everyone was, which is an adolescent’s idea of cool.
Pulling himself together at last, Kubrick mounts a sustained sequence, a terrifying, lucidly staged skirmish in bombed-out Hue. As the men launch themselves into a courtyard where a sniper hides in a wrecked building, the rubble and flames and filth come together in an overpowering image of war. For once, the deaths have an anguishing force. But again, the episode leads up to a mean, ironic little kicker. I won’t give it away, except to say that the men are done in by the one thing their supermacho training has led them to despise as less than nothing. The sniper, a slight Vietcong guerrilla in black pajamas, is a big laugh on the American killing machine: A single committed individual ties up an entire heavily armed platoon.
Kubrick doesn’t make the sniper a character, either. Only the mocking, antagonistic joke on American futility interests him. Full Metal Jacket is a large-scale, exciting, and audacious movie, but it has an impotent and malicious spirit. Whose complacency is Kubrick attacking with his nasty ironies? The two kinds of idealists who fought in Vietnam—the ones who thought they were saving the South Vietnamese and the military enthusiasts who believed in the invincibility of the American forces—have long been disillusioned. Apart from them, many people remain saddened by the moral confusions of Vietnam, but Kubrick would seem to be indifferent to such people. His annihilating wit denies any obligation to make sense of what it tells us. The movie is a case of intellectual laziness passing itself off as bitter truth: Stanley Kubrick has created a chaos out of his own demoralized and alienated state and called it Vietnam.
New York Magazine, July13, 1987