GI Jesus has a lot of things on its mind. It’s thinking about the war in Iraq. It’s thinking about immigration from Mexico. It’s thinking about how soldiers do or don’t reintegrate into society. It’s thinking about how being away affects a soldier’s family, and how the current stoploss policies hit them even harder. And yet thanks to a third act twist that makes the previous two-thirds of the movie pointless and the final fifteen or twenty minutes a bore, GI Jesus never really addresses any of these issues.
I want to start with one nitpick here: the title of the film is GI Jesus, but the Jesus (the Spanish name, not the Savior who is resting up for his rise this Sunday) in question is a Marine, who are not GIs. Somebody took me to task for this in my review of Flags of Our Fathers, and I have taken it to heart. If writer/director Carl Colpaert and the other screenwriters, Deborah Setele and Deon Wilks did research for this film, this is something they should have known. “It is verboten to speak of an enlisted Marine as a GI,” says Leatherneck, Magazine of the Marines. It’s a small detail but one that makes me feel like the movie is more interested in scoring points than in being accurate.
Which is a funny complaint from me, as I am ideologically aligned with this film for the most part. It makes me annoyed to see a movie that is coming from the same place that I am being too didactic, crossing the line from art to propaganda, because it makes the original beliefs look silly.
In GI Jesus Mexican immigrant Jesus Feliciano has joined the military and fought in Iraq to win a green card for him and his family (shades of Starship Troopers). While in the sand he has seen and done things that haunt him, and he finds that when he comes home getting back into the groove of things is difficult, especially because he has begun seeing an Iraqi man who isn’t there. The Iraqi man slowly forces Jesus to remember a patrol gone terribly wrong, and the Marine begins breaking down. Other problems arise: his daughter’s teacher tells the class that American soldiers in Iraq are murderers, and he begins to suspect that his wife is having an affair with a wealthy white guy. As Jesus falls apart he gets orders in the mail telling him that he’ll be shipping back out to Iraq in two weeks; suddenly he has to decide if citizenship is worth returning to war or if he should flee back to Mexico. All the while things become more and more surreal and bizarre as Jesus’ mental state decays.
The following paragraph contains major spoilers. Swipe at your own risk.
Except that none of it is real. Jesus has been asleep the whole time, dreaming the movie on the flight home from Iraq. While watching the film I was impressed with the way that Colpaert showed everything through Jesus’ subjective POV – after all, there seemed to be no other explanation for scenes like one at a general’s house where everyone suddenly starts playing musical chairs and then Jesus is ordered to go to South America to kill for the CIA. But it turns out that everything is a dream. ‘And then he woke up’ is one of the worst narrative techniques ever, and it should be used sparingly and certainly not after more than an hour of film has passed. The whole movie suddenly feels like a cheat, and when Jesus has to face the same choice in real life – flee or go back to Iraq – there’s no weight anymore.
While I have major issues with the storytelling of GI Jesus, I can’t fault the performances. Joe Arquette as Jesus is outstanding, coming across as an empathetic nice guy but slowly gaining an aura of menace and madness. Patricia Mota is his wife, and frankly the film may be worth seeing just for her. Mota is scorchingly hot and sensual, dripping sex off the screen. And before you castigate me for being a pig, I have to say that she does a terrific job as well – instead of presenting a one note sassy wife, Mota has depths of fear and pain that she keeps just under the surface.
Everything that GI Jesus wants to talk about is worth discussing, and when it looks like the movie is a slightly psychedelic and modern take on the shell shock genre, GI Jesus seems like a winner. Sadly the third act hits the movie like a torpedo, sending it slowly sinking into failure.