In 1989, Anthony "Swoff" Swofford, whose father served in the Vietnam War, attends U.S. Marine Corps training before being stationed at Camp Pendleton. Claiming that he joined the military because he "got lost on the way to college", Swofford finds his time at Camp Pendleton difficult, and struggles to make friends. While Swofford feigns illness to avoid his responsibilities, a "lifer", Staff Sergeant Sykes, takes note of his potential and orders Swofford to attend his Scout Sniper course.
After grueling training, the Scout Sniper course is left with eight candidates, among them Swofford, now a sniper, and Swofford's roommate Corporal Alan Troy who becomes his spotter. When Iraq invades Kuwait, Swofford's unit is deployed to the Arabian Peninsula as a part of Operation Desert Shield. Eager for combat, the Marines find themselves bored with remedial training, constant drills, and a routine monotony that feeds their boredom, and prompts them to talk about the unfaithful girlfriends and wives waiting for them at home. They even erect a bulletin board featuring photographs and brief notes telling what perfidies the women had committed.
Swofford obtains unauthorized alcohol and organizes an impromptu Christmas party, arranging for Fergus to cover his watch so he can celebrate. Fergus accidentally sets fire to a tent while cooking some sausages and ignites a crate of flares, waking the whole camp and enraging Staff Sergeant Sykes, who demotes Swofford from lance corporal to private and puts him on "shit-burning" detail. The punishments, combined with the heat, the boredom, and Swofford's suspicions of his girlfriend's infidelity, give Swofford a mental breakdown, to the point where he threatens Fergus with a rifle, then orders Fergus to shoot him instead.
Later, Operation Desert Storm begins and the Marines are sent to the Saudi Arabia-Kuwait border. Swofford learns from Sykes that Troy concealed his criminal record when enlisting and will be discharged when the unit returns home. Troy becomes distant from his friends. Knowing that Troy will not be allowed to reenlist, the Marines attack him with a red-hot USMC branding iron, marking him as one of their own. Following an accidental air attack from friendly forces, the Marines advance through the desert, facing no enemies on the ground. The Marines march through the Highway of Death, strewn with the burnt vehicles and charred bodies of retreating Iraqi soldiers, the aftermath of a bombing campaign. The Marines later catch sight of distant burning oil wells, ignited only moments before by retreating Iraqis, and they attempt to dig sleeping holes as a rain of crude oil falls from the sky. Before they can finish, Sykes orders the squad to move upwind.
Swofford and Troy are finally given a sniping mission. Lieutenant Colonel Kazinski, their battalion commander, orders them to kill at least one of two high-ranking Iraqi Republican Guard officers at a nearby airfield. At the last second before Swofford takes the shot, Major Lincoln interrupts them to call in an air strike. Swofford and Troy protest, but are overruled and look on in disappointment as airplanes destroy the Iraqi airfield.
After returning home the Marines parade through a town in a jovial celebration of victory. Swofford returns home to his family and girlfriend but discovers she has a new boyfriend. Fowler is seen with a prostitute in a bar, Kruger in a corporate boardroom, Escobar as a supermarket employee, Cortez as a father of three, and Sykes continuing his service as a first sergeant in the Iraq War. Later, Swofford learns of Troy's death during a surprise visit from Fergus. He attends his funeral, reunites with some of his old friends and afterwards reminisces about the effects of the war.Jake Gyllenhaal as Pvt/LCpl Anthony Swofford
Peter Sarsgaard as Cpl Alan Troy
Jamie Foxx as SSgt Sykes
Chris Cooper as LtCol Kazinski
Brian Geraghty as PFC Fergus O'Donnell
Lucas Black as LCpl Chris Kruger
Evan Jones as PFC Dave Fowler
Laz Alonso as LCpl Ramon Escobar
Jacob Vargas as LCpl Juan Cortez
John Krasinski as Cpl Harrigan
Dennis Haysbert as Maj Lincoln
Iván Fenyő as Pinko
Brianne Davis as Kristina
Martin Papazian as Brian Dettman
Scott MacDonald as D.I., SSgt Fitch
James Morrison as Old Mr. Swofford
Rini Bell as Swoff's sister
Jocko Sims as Julius
Steve Nguyen as Recruit
Damion Poitier as Marine #1
Michael Mercurio as Marine #2
The film received positive reviews from critics, registering a 61% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gave the movie three-and-a-half out of four stars, crediting it for its unique portrayal of Gulf War Marines who battled boredom and a sense of isolation rather than enemy combatants. Entertainment Weekly magazine gave the film a "B+" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote:
Jarhead isn't overtly political, yet by evoking the almost surreal futility of men whose lust for victory through action is dashed, at every turn, by the tactics, terrain, and morality of the war they're in, it sets up a powerfully resonant echo of the one we're in today.
In his review for the Washington Post, Stephen Hunter praised Jake Gyllenhaal's performance: "What's so good about the movie is Gyllenhaal's refusal to show off; he doesn't seem jealous of the camera's attention when it goes to others and is content, for long stretches, to serve simply as a prism through which other young men can be observed". Sight and Sound magazine's Leslie Felperin wrote, "If nothing else, Jarhead provides some kind of reportage of a war whose consequences we haven't yet begun to understand, a war now elbowed into history by its still-raging sequel". USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "What we're left with is solid if not exceptional, though it's good to see Mendes expanding as a filmmaker". Time magazine's Richard Schickel wrote, "But the best war movies—and this one, despite its being overlong and repetitive, is among them—hold that men fight (or in this case, are ready to fight) not for causes, but to survive and to help their comrades do the same".
However, in his review for The New York Times, A. O. Scott felt that the film was "full of intensity with almost no real visceral impact", and called it "a minor movie about a minor war, and a film that feels, at the moment, remarkably irrelevant". Kenneth Turan in his review for the Los Angeles Times wrote:
Its polished surfaces and professional style can't compete with the gritty reality conveyed by documentaries like Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland — or, for that matter, by the surreal black comedy of David O. Russell's Three Kings — that show in no uncertain terms what it's like to be a soldier in Iraq".
In his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, "A master of the monotone, Mendes prompts his performers to hit a note and sustain it. Although Jarhead is more visually accomplished and less empty than American Beauty or Road to Perdition, it still feels oppressively hermetic".
Nathaniel Fick, another author who is a Marine, gave the film a mixed review (and panned the book on which it is based) in Slate. He wrote, "Jarhead also presents wild scenes that probably could happen in combat units, but strips them of the context that might explain how they're more than sheer lunacy". James Meek, who reported from the battlefields of Iraq, reviewed the film in the pages of The Guardian. He wrote, "The key to a film about war is how it ends, and if the young man at the film's centre is lifted out of the battlefield uninjured and sane, if his family and home life before and after aren't prominent in the picture, the movie is diminished as a film which says something about war and becomes a simpler story of growing up, of jeopardy overcome".
In a New York Times article, it was noted that war veteran and writer Joel Turnipseed felt that parts of the film's plot had been taken from his 2002 book Baghdad Express: A Gulf War Memoir, without his consent. Jarhead screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. claimed that many similarities arise from the retelling of common Marine experiences. Joel Turnipseed himself has been an occasional contributor to the New York Times.
The film is followed by two direct to video sequels released in 2014 and 2016.