Death of the Critic

Anatomy of a Scene - Jarhead

Written by: Tom Blaich


This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.

Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless.

Normally in a film, a desire to kill is a bad thing, a trait of the villainous and psychotic. But here, that desire is attributed to our protagonist, nurtured until the very idea of getting to kill another human being is a cause for celebration, for hugs and cheers, raucous partying as young men hype themselves up to kill another person.
Jarhead is a film about war. About a bunch of boys that think they want to know the violence of war.

Jake Gyllenhaal is Anthony Swofford, a kid who got lost on his way to college and joined the marines to live up to the expectations of his father and uncle, Vietnam veterans who saw their share of battle. At first, he is a slacker, chugging laxatives in the latrine to feign sickness and avoid his duties. Abused by his DI, he is aimless, using the Marines as just another step on the long road of his life.

Until he is asked to become a snipe, and channel his rage, his confusion at the world into one thing: killing. And he wants it. He’s an excellent shooter, and with each training shot that he takes, he thinks of the lives that he someday will get to take. He practically needs to kill.

He is not alone in this feeling. The entire unit of snipers feels much the same way, if for different reasons. For much of this movie, they build upon this frustration, finally honed tools being left to rust in the sand while their chances to kill pass them by.

“This war’s gonna move too fast for us. Alright, we can shoot a thousand yards. To go that far in Vietnam, that’ll take a week. In World War 1, a year. Here, it’s gonna take about ten fucking seconds. By the time that we have our rifles dialed, the war’s gonna be a mile down the road.”

While most would celebrate this, not having to see combat, being in relative safety, letting planes with hundreds of thousands of pounds of bombs do all of the fighting and killing, without taking any of the risk yourself. But here, that is unacceptable. A Marine needs to kill. That is their purpose. Their calling. What they are made to do through the hell that is boot camp, and every day in country reminds them that they are not fulfilling their duty. They are being denied their right, only being allowed to shoot at paper targets and marching through the desert all day long. Every Marine is first a rifleman, and by God do they want to shoot.

When finally given an opportunity, they jump at it. Swofford and his spotter Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) are asked to kill 2 Republican Guard leaders in an air traffic control tower at an occupied air base. The Marine commander plays to them, half-pep rally hype man, and half military leader. “I’ve got the kinda mission scout-snipers would pop their grandmas to get.” Sneak in, next to 750 bad guys, kill the leaders and extract. “Some of my officers think that scout-snipers are prima donnas. They think STA stands for suntan association. Are they right? Then fucking show me.”

The way that they get to their sniper hide is actually rather basic. What seems like a short crawl up a sand berm shows them a dilapidated building overlooking the airfield. Far from their joking personas that we have seen for much of the film, right now they are deadly serious, their seemingly short trip playing to the anticipation that the men are feeling.

We cut to Swofford looking through the scope of his rifle at the control tower in the distance, the building filled with rubble, speaking to past carnage, much like the carnage the men would like to inflict upon the Republican Guardsman. Through the scope of the rifle, the control tower is brought into sharp focus. Upon our first look, the tower is empty, and the frustration is evident, not only for the two men, but also for us in the audience.

Their one chance is slipping out from in between their fingers like the sand that has surrounded them. “Shit, the sun’s going down. There’s no one in the tower. Shit!” The best shooter in STA dragged out here on a fool’s errand, our hero sitting in a destroyed building alone with his partner staring his failure in the face.

It’s appropriate to the maniacal frustration that they have been going through, and as an audience, we feel bad for them. We wanted them to get their kill, to be able to carve a notch into their bedposts and pull the trigger on another person, and it makes you question who we are really rooting for here.


Our attention is called back, and we lean forward as Troy looks through his binoculars. “Thank you, Jesus.” We can see the faces of the men as they come up the stairs. They are people, not targets, but as the crosshair of the scope traces their path, we forget that. We want to watch that bullet arc through the air and into their bodies even as we study their faces.

It zooms in slightly as the as the two men talk to each other, their conversation unknown but their faces and emotions clearly visible. We can see Swofford relax behind the rifle as Troy radios for permission for them to take the shot. His moment is here. They are going to get the kill that they have worked so hard, and traveled so far for. Bringing them from the heartlands of America to the vast deserts of Kuwait.

“That’s what they look like. Huh.” The men in the tower argue, as Swofford watches, this small element of personality creating a set of characters without ever hearing them speak, two men trying to argue through something much like the Marines have all movie. “Range… 900 yards.” But this personality seemingly does not register as Swofford and Troy robotically go through all of the prep for their shot, trying to put a lid on the excitement that they feel, dialing in range and windage on the scope of the rifle, gloved fingers slowly turning well-worn knobs, each click bringing us closer to the moment that we have been building towards. Swofford breathes in and out as Troy continues to radio in the background, thumb inching forward to push off the safety. Red means dead, and the rifle is ready to fire.

“We have the shot, over.” We’ve seen the men struggle with the radios all movie, the heavy, unwieldy “pricks”, PRC radio sets, prone to breaking at the worst time, and in the back of our minds, we worry that it is happening again, that it will hold them back, prevent them from taking their shoot, killing the men. Swofford looks at Troy out of the corner of his eyes as his spotter’s hand quivers with the radio next to his ear. “Affirmative.” The acknowledgement without emotion as we wait to hear what order has been given.

“Permission to fire.”

There is a look of anticipating that passes between them, an energy in the air that we are drawn into, that we are a part of. Swofford wrangles his excitement into check as he rests himself on the rifle. This is happening. Someone is about to die. It is his time, and we’ve been waiting for this all movie. Much like the grunts as they hear the news that they are headed to war, we are excited, ecstatic for the coming kill.

The crosshair gently sweeps over the side of the man’s head as Swofford’s finger creeps towards the trigger. We can imagine how the blood spray will look, the pink mist of cranial evacuation at 2600 feet per second as the 7.62 mm bullet enters his skull. God damn, we want it, a dirty finger curling around the finger as it builds toward release.



The man’s head doesn’t explode. The violence doesn’t come. Instead, Major Lincoln (Dennis Haysbert) comes bursting through the door. “What the fuck frequency are you on?” Swofford and Troy look almost incredulous as he snatches the kill away from right in front of their eyes, their one chance disappearing. “We have permission to take the shot.”

It’s almost like children arguing with a teacher, making excuses and trying to justify their actions. We hate Lincoln. He has tormented Swofford before, and as additional soldiers unfold a lawn chair behind him, you just hate him even more, with cocky swagger and disregard of the two young Marines. He has bad knees from college football, or at least that is the justification, and this air support that he is going to call in is going to blow your fucking minds.

But that’s not what we want to happen. We wanted the violence to be personal. To be up close, bloody, and sudden. Not abstracted out with fighter jets dropping thousand pound bombs. Troy begs Lincoln to let the men take the shot anyway, to shoot right before the air support hits. And it’s almost pathetic how bad they want it at this point, how much they need to kill another person, and how much we agree with them. But Lincoln stands in the way.

“Wait, wait, wait, wait. Sir, we won’t tell anybody. We don’t need to tell anybody.” It’s never been about bragging rights for these men. It’s about proving to themselves that they are men, that they are Marines. That they can exert themselves over someone else’s life. Play the part of the grim reaper with a high-powered rifle. It’s sad how far these men have fallen, and as his appeals fall on deaf ears, he tries everything that he can, and nothing works. It’s a child throwing a tantrum, but instead of a lollipop it’s a human life that he wants. Finally, Troy snatches the radio out of Lincoln’s hands. “Goddamn it, he’s dead anyway, just let us do it!”

This is how much this kill means to them. How much it means to us. Swofford tries to reason with Troy as he stands between the two arguing men> This is our violence, and this is what happens when it is taken from us. It turns us into quivering, sobbing messes. We try to rationalize it, “because… because we have the goddamn shot.” But it doesn’t matter. We lust after the violence, and when it is stolen away, we don’t know what we are going to do. We are left aimless.

Part commentary on the nature of the audience, part look at human nature and how we treat men in the military, our desire for violence fills boots on the ground and seats in a theater. Yet all we get for it is an impersonal explosion as two men sit defeated in a corner, dreams of the pink mist of another man’s life being taken from them.

“That is my kill! My kill!” Troy has to leave the Marines as soon as they return to the States. He lied on his application about his criminal record. This was his last chance to do what he was made to do. What he lived to do. But he doesn’t get that chance.

The only time he will ever take a life is when he takes his own.

A man fires a rifle for many years.

And he goes to war.

And afterward he comes home, and he sees that whatever else he may do with his life

Build a house

Love a woman

Change his son’s diapers

He will always remain a jarhead.

And all the jarheads

Killing and dying

They will always be me

We are still in the desert.



Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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