The Marines of Corp 3092 don’t pray to God, they pray to their rifles.
Full Metal Jacket (1987) is a film that observes the complexities of modern war and – as per the genius of Stanley Kubrick – there are a multitude of philosophical and existential questions posed. However, there is one scene which stands alone as the most disturbing in Kubrick’s collection. The breakdown and murder-suicide of Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio) is a bone-chillingly brilliant piece of cinema.
Full Metal Jacket is often remembered by for its Marines in-training opening-half led by the immensely entertaining and quotable Drill Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey). The Marines are tested both mentally and physically by Hartman; who acts as the masculine measuring stick for the recruits. His verbally aggressive approach eventually contributes to the mental breakdown of Leonard (whom he names ‘Gomer Pyle’, a reference to a simple, slow and southern television character). From the outset Hartman targets Leonard as an infantile figure that is incapable of surviving in his hyper-masculine environment. Hartman’s relentless barrage of ridicule and humiliation provides a tension which simmers until the film reaches its midpoint climax.
When the murder-suicide scene arrives it is a striking piece of cinema. The slow drippings of a tap and Vivian Kubrick’s (daughter of Stanley and credited on the film as Abigail Mead) piercingly eerie score provokes an overwhelming sense of dread. It is an arresting change from the country twangs of Johnny Wright’s ‘Hello Vietnam’ which open the film.
When the Joker enters the ‘Head’ room and sees Leonard armed with a rifle the tension is inescapable. Joker shines the torch to reveal Leonard’s fierce bull-like stare which is not too dissimilar from Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). “I am in a world of shit” remarks Leonard, and his transition into the violent and masculine world is complete. The crazed look on his face is unimaginable from the child-like grin he dons at the start of the film. Kubrick gives us a glimpse of an innocent young man who has been broken by mentality of a killer fit for war. This gripping scene reaches its end when Leonard shoots Hartman and then – sparing Joker – kills himself. Masculinity fights itself and loses.
Audiences can be forgiven for overlooking the vastly underappreciated second half of this film; as Leonard’s suicide has an unsettling effect which lingers long after. It may be the one of cinema’s most realistic suicide scenes. Kubrick’s Vietnam War film morphs into a war-horror film in one haunting scene. It is a remarkably impactful scene that bleeds into the rest of the film as the Joker struggles to come to terms with the duality of mankind at war. At the end Full Metal Jacket, Joker fittingly reflects on his existence – “I am in a world of shit. But I am still alive.”