Full Metal Jacket

(Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA, 1987)


2022 Introduction: On its initial release, Full Metal Jacket unleashed a visceral, rather dismissive and reductive critical reaction in me. This was because, as I well see in retrospect, it fell on the wrong side of an evaluative dichotomy of “open” and “closed” cinema that I was toying with at the time (in my mid-to-late 20s); I was even able to polemically counterpose it, on the same printed page, with a review of what I presented as the complete opposite in style and sensibility: Jim McBride’s The Big Easy (1986), which appeared at exactly the same moment in Australian cinemas. I have retained the somewhat sour review below just as I wrote it in 1987, recognising that it gives absolutely no indication of how highly I then (as now) rated some previous Kubrick films – Paths of Glory (1957), Lolita (1962), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Barry Lyndon (1975). And nor was I gifted, back then, with a clairvoyant vision of what Eyes Wide Shut (1999) would mean to me 12 years later! Full Metal Jacket has never risen to the top rank of the director’s work in my estimation, but I would approach it much more sympathetically and appreciatively today than I did in 1987.


In the late 1960s, before psychoanalysis became a particularly complex part of film theory, there was a relatively simple but highly suggestive idea kicking about concerning the psychic function of popular film; it derives especially from Thomas Elsaesser’s early work on the psychic drive structure of the film-viewing experience.


The idea goes that a film accumulates in the viewer a surplus of aroused emotional and psychological energy that it channels, works over and discharges in various ways. Perhaps a fundamentally crude and (in some presentations) overly masculine model of spectator-response, but one nonetheless capable of careful inflection at the intercession of either viewer or filmmaker.


One might well imagine, however, that Stanley Kubrick has devoted his entire filmmaking career to proving Elsaesser’s basic point. There is no blunter or more forceful mechanism of energy build-up and discharge in all cinema than that perfected in films like A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Shining (1980) and Full Metal Jacket (1987).


Full Metal Jacket has two quite distinct parts, training and combat. In each one, all the fictional and stylistic elements are put to the sole purpose of getting us to the moment of dramatic and visceral discharge – those moments mainstream reviewers will be falling over themselves to call powerful, unsettling and maybe, at a pinch, thought provoking. But if the film provokes thought, it is not really around the historical question of the Vietnam War, which is, in its operation, only a pretext for these Kubrickian effects.


The training part stays with you longer. It’s a tour de force of verbal/vocal cinema – a relentless stream of shouted question/answer interrogations (“Sir-yes-Sir!”) and call/response chants. There is scarcely a word of normal dialogue exchanged between the soldiers. Kubrick’s point concerns the brutalisation of human beings through extreme sensory and affective deprivation – these soldiers are rendered rigid, atomised, eyes fixed straight ahead, no contact with another person allowed. Something’s gotta give … and it sure does.


Kubrick’s strategy – some will construe it as hypocrisy – as a filmmaker is to perfectly reproduce this sensory deprivation, exactly on the level at which his film works on us as viewers. Form is function, and meaning, with a vengeance here. His tunnel-vision economy is tyrannical and his mise en scène relentlessly square (compositionally) and linear (dramaturgically – actors utter their lines only when stroboscopically cued by the steely, mobile camera eye or the metronomic editing). It’s a deliberately tight-ass film; not even a hint or breath of life gets in.


Accordingly, this late-period, nihilistic evolution (or devolution) in Kubrick’s style unerringly appeals to a particular hardcore type of “extreme cinema” patron or artist. I predict that we will see many brutal homages to Full Metal Jacket, from film-school-student level upwards, in the decades to come!


Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge (1986) had, in its own mode, more to say and show about the process of training and men in war. While Eastwood could (however gingerly) deal with the massively homosexual implications arising from the dialogue’s forms of verbal obscenity, the second part of Full Metal Jacket drops the subject as fast as possible (one is hard pressed to find any dramatic connection between the two parts whatsoever beyond the dimly, confusedly conceived narrator figure of Joker/Matthew Modine). What’s left is the Big Effect – the horror of war turning on a shock of sexual difference – and the concluding “moral lesson”.


Full Metal Jacket hinges on the significance of the line uttered at the end of both its parts: “I’m in a world of shit”. Kubrick definitely has (in Robin Wood’s term, via Norman O. Brown) an excremental vision. A world of shit: that means brutality, madness, horror … probably also Evil Itself. His film outdoes even Apocalypse Now (1979/2001) in the reduction of political history to Gothic metaphysics and existentialist heroics (“Yes, I am in a world of shit, but I’m alive, and I’m not afraid” – big deal; compare, on all these points, to Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One [1980/2004]).


Kubrick’s most intense engagement with this subject matter happens at the level of making “Surfer Bird” – accompanying a slow Steadicam view of war atrocities – sound creepy. Of such effects is a Master Filmmaker made. I am not being entirely sardonic about this; it does take a very particular mastery of art and craft to pull off what Kubrick achieves here and in his hardest-line projects.


How many years did we have to wait for Kubrick to do it to us this time around? In the dead gloom following the Master’s magnificent discharge, I found myself thinking that – all in all – I’d rather have it done to me differently.

MORE Kubrick: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

© Adrian Martin September 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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