Stanley Kubrick has never been the kind of storyteller that tells a tale only for the sake of telling it. Behind every one of his films lurks an underlying message, a criticism, a warning, a prophecy. FMJ is not any different. The story, set during the Vietnam war and adapted from the novel "The Short Timers" by Gustav Hasford, follows a group of fresh recruits from their initial training period at Parris Island to their tour of duty in the hell that is Vietnam. As many of the Kubrick movies are, this film is divided into three major acts: Parris Island, Arrival in Vietnam, and War. The first part, which is, in my opinion, the best, covers the recruits' training months at Parris Island. They arrive there fresh, eager, and innocent. That will all change. This part reflects on the near-total de-humanisation that the military inflicts on the recruits as social, friendly, humans degenerate into pseudo-mindless biological machines with a near lack of empathy and sentiment from the death of others. This whole dehumanisation process is concentrated into one man: Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, Drill Instructor. This is possibly the most influencial perfomance in any war movie, as practically every drill instructor in later films is a copy of R. Lee Ermey's foul-mouthed, explosive character. This part of the film also culminates into one of the film's most powerful scenes, a chilling moment that is handled with extraordinary mastery by Kubrick. The second part of the film is perhaps the most flawed. It follows the same group of recruits as they endure their first period of time in Vietnam. The characters are somewhat developed here, but generally, the film trodds here as no great progress in storytelling is being made. However, all this is remedied in the third part, which has the group pass through a seemingly abandoned city. There, all hell breaks loose, and the story progresses to a powerful, disturbing ending. Generally, the script is good. However, most of my gripes with the film are related to it. For one, the characters aren't developed enough for us to really connect or empathize with, and no memorable persons really shine through (except for one, and if you've seen the film, you know what I mean...). Furthermore, the film feels fragmented, and the transition between the three acts could have been much smoother. However, the plot and script remain worthy of praise.
Also worthy of praise is the acting, as the ensemble acting is great. However, two performances shine brightly in this movie: the first is R. Lee Ermey, the drill instructer, who gives an unforgettable performance. The second, and the best, comes from Vincent D'Onofrio, who plays Private Gomer Pyle. His performance is extraordinary, and his final scene is downright chilling (it is also textbook Kubrick).
As you would expect from any Kubrick movie, the visuals are worthy of mention. Present are the trademark sweeping shots, the precise tracking motions, the symmetrical camera shots and angles, and the close face-shots. However, Kubrick also uses some slow-motion to great effect. The cinematography is also worthy of mention, as it is extremely realistic yet harrowingly sharp. The soundtrack is also strong and complements the film admirably. Thus, as in all Kubrick pictures, the film is supremely well crafted.
Full Metal Jacket is a very difficult film to judge, as it develops a difficult subject, and it's directed in a sometimes cryptic matter. For example, I've stated that the characters are not developed enough in the Vietnam acts. And while I still support this view, I cannot help but believe that Kubrick did it intentionally in order to demonstrate the dehumanisation process. And while I feel that the film is too fragmented for its own good, I cannot help but ask myself if Kubrick fragmented the film on purpose in order to demonstrate the chaos and disorder the Vietnam soldier experienced. And if these two demonstrations of almost transcendent mastery by Kubrick are true, should they lift my regard of the film higher than it is. It's is a difficult and uneasy question, but then again, Full Metal Jacket is a difficult and oftentimes distubing picture. And, while in the end I feel that Kubrick has not given us the best overall war movie, I do strongly feel that he has given us the most cryptic and intellectually troubling war film. That's Kubrick for you.
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