Sometimes a killing machine just has to be a killing machine!
Screenplay By: Gustav Hasford, Michael Herr, & Stanley Kubrick
Directed By: Stanley Kubrick
Full Metal Jacket is most definitely a film of two halves. However, unlike the majority of people I found that the two halves inform one another and make for one heck of a complete picture. I will grant the naysayers this much, the tonal shift from the first half to the second half is quite jarring. If there was one negative I would put upon Full Metal Jacket it is that the film does not shift gears as smoothly as it probably could have. That’s a minor beef though, and in the end the jarring tonal shift between the two halves is not a real knock against Full Metal Jacket.
The first half of Full Metal Jacket is a magnum opus on a favorite theme of Stanley Kubrick’s, dehumanization. The obvious target is that of Private Pyle, or as he’s known when others aren’t mocking him, Leonard Lawrence. His character is focused on heavily, and the performance from Vincent D’Onofrio is chilling to behold. However, I was struck by how Mr. Kubrick dehumanized all of the characters and that the one who ends up being the most human is actually Pyle. Joker has his moment in the barracks where he loses it and strikes out at Pyle for his failings. Cowboy, Snowball, and all the rest of the grunts also engage in the telling moment that shows how much of their humanity has been stripped away. But, all the while it is the character of Drill Instructor Hartman, brilliantly portrayed by R. Lee Ermey, who shows the true lack of humanity in Mr. Kubrick’s military. He thinks he is servicing humanity by breaking down the grunts and making them better men and serviceable soldiers. In reality he is slowly stripping away his own humanity, until he faces his final test and is unable in that moment to muster even a shred of humanity for a damaged human being standing in front of him.
The second half of Full Metal Jacket may be tonally different, but it is in actuality an extension of the first half. Mr. Kubrick shifts the focus of Full Metal Jacket from dehumanization to the idea of inhumane killing machines let loose in the world. The soldiers are put in common scenarios that have been seen a hundred times in a hundred other war movies. The difference as far as Full Metal Jacket is concerned is that the first half exists to inform the second half. We have seen the humanity ripped from these soldiers, some literally others in the sense that they are soldiers and we know they have undergone the same trials as the grunts we followed in the first half. They are madmen loosed upon a hellish world where only madmen can survive. The world of war is not a place for humanity, it is a place where those who display humanity are discarded like expired meat. Full Metal Jacket needs to be as hellish as it is in its second half, because hell is the only destination that makes sense for the killing machines that are the product of the first half.
There’s almost no point in me talking about the beautiful framing found in Full Metal Jacket. The composition from Mr. Kubrick, score from Vivian Kubrick, and cinematography help from Douglas Milsome all work together to create a beautifully creepy vision of war and humanity. In the case of Mr. Kubrick’s daughter, her score is powerful not only in the atmosphere she creates through her musical choices but in the powerful ambiance she gives to certain scenes by not adding in any score whatsoever. Mr. Kubrick and Mr. Milsome combine their talents to create a film that is impeccably framed and filmed from stem to stern. Then there is the acting, which is surprisingly restrained and all the more effective because of the restrained approach. On every technical level Full Metal Jacket is an impressive feature.
It’s not the greatest war film ever made, nor is it the greatest feature from Mr. Kubrick. That does not lessen Full Metal Jacket’s ability to be a chilling treatise on war and humanity. Mr. Kubrick shines his lens bright on the machines that keep our country going and the results are aesthetically pleasing but morally troubling. Full Metal Jacket belongs in the same breath as the top tier films from Mr. Kubrick. It is a hellish trip through war and an atmosphere laden rupturing of humanity that is painful and yet essential to watch.