‘Sand Castle’ Is a Spiritual Sequel to ‘Jarhead’
Another standard entry in the FUBAR genre
War is hell, the old saying goes, and some of America’s most powerful war films belong to a genre that’s all about the pointless horror of combat. You’ve seen those movies—the ones where young idealistic men go to a foreign country, lose a friend and a limb, then come home to a country that doesn’t understand them.
Netflix’s newest war movie, Sand Castle, isn’t quite one of those.
It’s part of a new and budding genre, one I think started with Jarhead in 2005. Call it nihilism in the sand. In these, a young cynical man goes to war and learns that everything is fucked and nothing matters. Double points if the kid never even fires his weapon in combat.
Sand Castle is one of those. In many ways, it’s an update or a sequel to Jarhead. No, not like those weird action flicks Hollywood churned out and then labeled as sequels—i.e. Jarhead 2: Fields of Fire—but an honest to God spiritual successor to that movie where Jake Gyllenhaal wandered through the desert and kicked the sand. Unfortunately, it’s not anywhere near as good.
“I was lucky to get a war. That’s how the old guy saw it,” Pvt. Ocre tell us in the opening moments of Sand Castle. It’s a voice over. The first and only voice over in the entire film. “The truth is, I joined the reserves for college money. I don’t belong here and I’m ashamed of that. But a war story can’t be true unless it’s got some shame attached.”
Ocre sticks his hand in the door of a Humvee and slams the door on it repeatedly. Blood wells on his hand and Ocre grits his teeth. The film moves to the opening credits, and then cuts to Ocre walking around the Kuwait staging area a few months later with a cast around his arm. The attempt at self-harm didn’t work, they kept him in.
Like Gyllenhaal in Jarhead, Ocre joined up because his father and grandfather had joined. He’s not a Marine, by the way, just a rifleman in the Army. He enlisted in the reserves a few months before 9/11 and he really doesn’t want to be in the desert killing people. He wants to go home, but the war won’t let him. That is, of course, until he decides he wants to stay.
The script comes from veteran Chris Roessner and he based it on his experiences in the early days of the Iraq War. That experience lends a strange credibility to both the interactions between the characters and the firefights. When these guys let loose and dick around and talk to each other, Sand Castle is at its best. There’s clever lines and dialogue that distinguish the characters.
The fight scenes also feel more authentic than other war movies. The camera pulls back and we can see all the angles. There’s no close up shaky cam here—that tired technique that some directors think adds to the intensity of a battle but, in truth, just makes the audience sick.
The soldiers take cover, call out what they see, fire in small bursts, then retreat to cover. True, the rifles don’t kick as they should, but we can’t have everything we want.
After an explosive opening to the war, the Army assigns Ocre and his squad to assist a group of special operations soldiers fixing a well that U.S. forces destroyed. Henry Cavill plays Cpt. Syverson—a kind of Ur-American Sniper. Syverson talks quick, hates everyone and sports a beard, dark sunglasses and a Punisher T-shirt. He’s both interesting and underused.
Ocre and his squad spend the bulk of the movie transporting water around, trying to help the village and repairing a water pump that’ll help bring life back to the village. The insurgents don’t like that and want to blow the damn thing up. Anyone seen helping the Americans is suspect and Ocre and crew have to manage expectations against reality, make friends and avoid enemies.
Then Sand Castle gets dark and faces the hard reality of the Iraq War. Counter-insurgency campaigns are hard to win and no matter how good a military’s hearts-and-minds strategy, there will be a contingent who’d rather die than see it succeed.
The locals who help the U.S. military die horribly. The film doesn’t shy away from it. It was a memory hard for the screenwriter to relive.
“They were killed for helping us and they were well aware of that,” Roessner told Fox News. “That’s not something that we realized right away. We learned it quickly, but the price that people paid for helping us was very, very high.”
“I was surprised to find that, even though I’d lived with the script for seven years, watching it happen, I really wanted to change it. I really wanted to make it happen differently, and that feeling was surprising and overwhelming,” he said. “But ultimately, if I changed it, I think I would do a disservice to the folks that I’ve served alongside. It was much too important for me that I stay true to those moments, but it was very, very hard.”
It’s a tough movie to watch—not bad, but not great. The reviews aren’t good and the main complaint seems to be that it’s boring and it’s a kind of film everyone’s seen before. That’s true, but I think Roessner hit on a deeper truth here.
There’s something else going on in this film, something Americans don’t like to face up to—we failed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We tried to win hearts and minds and it didn’t work out. No matter how many wells we repaired, water pumps we refurbished and schools we built, there was always someone waiting in the wings to blow them up and torture the locals who helped.
In the desert, in the early days of the 21st century, American soldiers fought and died in a country that didn’t much want us there. We’re still fighting those wars and they aren’t going well. Roessner remembers and Sand Castle is his ode to the soldiers he served with. The soldiers he watched die. It honors those men even as its ending drives home how pointless and stupid the whole enterprise was, and is.
“What’s fascinating about war is that if you’re a 19-year-old kid from Arkansas with a GED, war will turn you into a philosopher,” Roessner said.
It’s better than nothing. It’s better than nothing at all. Roll credits and send in another round of fresh faced kids who needed money or a purpose.