Full Metal Jacket may well be Stanley Kubrick’s most difficult film. It is in equal parts brilliant and frustrating, and it was, for Kubrick, an experiment, for he said as much outright; he wanted to “explode” the traditional filmic structure. And indeed he did—Full Metal Jacket barely resembles a movie. Movies should have cogent, sequenced story and clear, defined characters. Full Metal Jacket does not deliver that. It is essentially a collection of short stories captured on film stock; it is a series of loosely related vignettes strung together to make something that barely resembles a narrative. That has some very interesting consequences, and a great deal can come out of analyzing how Kubrick designed and arranged this film, but if you asked me to deliver a verdict, I would ultimately say that Full Metal Jacket is a failure.
We might set about understanding why this is by first considering one small truth: the only part of Full Metal Jacket that the general audience cares for (and indeed remembers) is its first chapter, set in the Marine Corps boot camp with the pitiful Private Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio), the enigmatic Private Joker (Matthew Modine) and the austere Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), drill instructor to the new recruits. The sentiment you’ll commonly hear people express is that they like the first half of the film but could do without the second half (where the movie shifts to Vietnam). And, as it happens, popular culture has apparently long forgotten that Full Metal Jacket even continues past those initial forty-five minutes. When the film is mentioned today, it is inevitably as a reference to something the drill instructor howled at the draftees: “Get on your knees, scumbag,” “There is no racial bigotry here,” and “What is your major malfunction, numbnuts?” How many other films are known for only one of their acts? We do not dispose of the second half of Apocalypse Now. Nobody watches just the last half hour of Taxi Driver, or the middle portion of Deer Hunter.
There is, of course, a plain difference between Full Metal Jacket and those three films: Full Metal Jacket is segmented into what are essentially self-contained chapters while the others are more traditional in their approach. It’s fair to describe Full Metal Jacket as a collection of well-produced vignettes that do not cleanly mesh together. There is some—several of the characters carry across the whole film, namely Joker—but one could watch the final chapter on its own and still get something out of it, and the same applies for the famous boot camp sequence. The chapters are disparate in way that is detrimental to the picture. It does not feel as if the scenes in the boot camp inform anything that occurs later in the film. Certainly, there are thematic links across the chapters, but it is not as if we would be missing some key information needed to understand the Vietnam sequences if the boot camp never existed. In fact, most of the characters we meet in the second half are new and have no direct link to the boot camp chapter. (Again, there are thematic links between chapters, but no narrative, plot-based links.) Some of its scenes are so casually inserted as to be jarring. One sequence has a group of soldiers haggling down a hooker’s asking price. Eventually they settle at $10 a pop, and there the scene ends, never to be addressed again.
This segment-like nature eventually becomes problematic. For one, not only is there a clear difference in quality between chapters—leading to the popular claim that the first half is better than the rest of the picture—but the film loses momentum the further it goes on. By the time we near the end, any fervor or tension that the boot camp scenes had instilled in us has disappeared, and we’re merely waiting for the final scenes to play out. It is as if Kubrick hits a reset button two-thirds of the way in—by the time we’ve reached the shootout with the sniper we’ve almost forgotten the boot camp scenes ever happened. (The death of Private Pyle is a bold and affecting twist, but if Pyle had featured throughout the picture the problem of connecting the chapters together wouldn’t exist; he would act as a constant. Imagine him replacing Adam Baldwin’s dimwitted “Animal Mother” character.) Kubrick is asking us to link the chapters together by ourselves, but he doesn’t offer the information required for us to do this at anything other than a superficial level.
The connections we’re asked to make are thematic, but the director isn’t particularly intrepid here, and we’re left with little more than the now trite ‘soldiers are emotionless killing machines.’ It is surely troubling to watch a gunner firing at peasants from a helicopter while shouting, “Get some! Get some! Get some!” but there is not much we can do with this. I suppose one might interpret this theme as anti-war, but even so it comes across as meaningless here, perhaps because the shell-shocked, brutalizing Vietnam vet archetype has been deployed so many times that it has practically become farcical. And, in any case, other artists have done it better: Coppola in Apocalypse Now; the novelist Tim O’Brien in his series of Vietnam War-related books, especially The Things They Carried. I would argue that even First Blood, which I wrote about last week, does a better job of evoking this issue than Full Metal Jacket. Easily the most intelligent thing Kubrick does is to combine sex and war, yet he barely elaborates on this theme. Allusions to sex are peppered throughout Full Metal Jacket. Some of them are overt, and some more subtle or casual; the appearance of a prostitute is blatant, while the recruits marching around holding their crotches is slightly less so, and even the inclusion of the female sniper at the end seems to hint at this theme. Sex as an act of aggression, specifically by soldiers, has not been explicitly examined by too many pictures, and while Kubrick lays the groundwork for such discussion he never executes upon it, and the theme is left to float away.
Because there are no connections between the film’s chapters, and because the thematic content isn’t strong enough to lend the film any significant breadth, Full Metal Jacket closes on an empty note with a monologue that some may find misplaced, or alternately just pretentious. Kubrick has been described as a director who works on evoking emotions, not on communicating ideas—2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, both impactful works, are clear examples of this. But that emotion must be packaged in a narrative that can aptly communicate those feelings, even if it is as simple as ‘these people are trapped in a hotel.’ Full Metal Jacket fails to achieve that.
Full Metal Jacket’s disparate and confused nature might be an attempt at reflecting the Vietnam War itself, at least in the way a soldier might have perceived the war. The war’s mind-bending, destructive qualities have been highlighted in all manner of works, Apocalypse Now the most prominent of them. Some critics called Full Metal Jacket “dreamlike,” and even “horrific,” and that would at least explain why Kubrick flits from scene to scene, giving us an overly soluble film. But we must be cautious of overanalyzing a work and instilling meaning undeservedly. Even if a “dreamlike” quality was Kubrick’s intention, his muddy delivery confuses the work too much for us to be sure. On the credits roll, and years later, people remember the film for the tragic Private Pyle and the hilariously evil drill instructor, not for its ephemeral-like structure. A failure, then, but not a total loss—even if we only get the boot camp sequence out of it, then I would say that Kubrick did well. Next week: the twentieth anniversary of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs!