Gritty ‘Tigerland’ Revisits Vietnam War in Boot Camp
“Tigerland” is a Vietnam War movie that takes place not in Southeast Asia but in a Louisiana Army boot camp in 1971, and it’s a film with more psychological suspense than action. In short, it is atypical, especially for its director, Joel Schumacher, whose name is synonymous with summer blockbusters and boffo John Grisham adaptations. (He moved in a new direction with his last picture, “Flawless,” which was in essence a two-character drama featuring Robert De Niro’s macho ex-security guard and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s drag queen.)
With this taut, spare drama, which is consistently fresh, engrossing and unpredictable, Schumacher has traveled all the way from “Batman” movies to a picture consciously made in the rigorous spirit and style of Lars von Trier’s anti-glitz Dogma credo--it has that kind of grit and spontaneity. Few big-time Hollywood directors have attempted such a major shifting of gears and done it so successfully.
Armed with a top-notch script by Ross Klavan--who drew upon personal experiences--and Michael McGruther, Schumacher has turned out a film that has an exceptionally strong personal feel to it. “Tigerland” launches a screenful of young and talented actors and wins over even those of us who frankly would rather never have to deal with the Vietnam War on the screen ever again.
We’ve met Colin Farrell’s Bozz before, the cocky private who’s smart and caring but has a real problem with respecting authority. In the conventional war picture he’d shape up by the last reel and emerge a hero. His rite of passage here is not going to be conventional, because Vietnam was not a conventional war; by 1971 it was widely felt to be a losing proposition, even if not everyone admitted it.
“Tigerland” offers a stinging picture of the Army chain of command going through the motions of barking out commands and toughening up new infantrymen in eight weeks of basic training followed by a final week in Tigerland, as close a simulation to Vietnamese jungles as possible. The difference here, and it is profound, is that these young men are being ordered to risk their lives to fight a losing war. So thick you can all but taste it, this feeling seriously erodes the up-and-down-the-line respect that any fighting unit needs.
Most of the young men, however, pretty much keep their feelings to themselves, but Bozz cannot or will not hide his sense of the absurdity and futility of the dehumanizing process he and the others are undergoing. It’s not that Bozz runs off at the mouth all the time; he knows that a glance here and a couple of remarks there are all it takes in these rigid conditions to express an attitude of defiance at the risk of severe consequences.
Not surprisingly, Bozz enrages all of those in positions of command, and while becoming a hero to others, especially when he helps two hapless misfits, Miter and Cantwell (achingly well-played by Clifton Collins Jr. and Thomas Guiry). The brutally realistic and shrewd Capt. Saunders (Nick Searcy) loathes Bozz because he recognizes that he is a born leader who refuses to take responsibility or accept authority.
Bozz becomes the inevitable target of the psychopathic Wilson (Shea Whigham, whom you love to hate), yet this clash doesn’t play out quite the way you predict it will any more than any other aspect of the film; Schumacher creates a lethal atmosphere in which just about anything can happen.
The film’s other key character is Matthew Davis’ Paxton, a college student who becomes friends with Bozz. They are poised young men, more intelligent, articulate and reflective than the others in their platoon. In comparison to Bozz, the knocked-around realist, disillusioned rather than easily cynical, Paxton is naive, not a supporter of the war effort yet willing to serve his country. He keeps a diary in the hopes of becoming another Ernest Hemingway or James Jones. All the tensions, conflicts and contradictions that have been building look to be coming to a boil under the extreme duress of Tigerland.
Farrell and Davis, with only a few screen credits under their belts, are potent discoveries who should receive key career boosts with their performances; indeed, everyone involved in the making of “Tigerland” on both sides of the camera comes out looking good. The film itself, photographed (in 16 millimeter) with stunning immediacy by Matthew Libatique, looks great, its impact punctuated by a consistently apt score composed by Nathan Larson, fresh off “Boys Don’t Cry.” “Tigerland” is tightly constructed and culminates with a stunningly appropriate charge of ambiguity.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence, pervasive language, a scene of strong sexuality/nudity, and for language. Times guidelines: Often frightening and brutal, and while the sex scene is brief, it’s quite graphic; unsuitable for children.
Colin Farrell: Bozz
Matthew Davis: Paxton
Clifton Collins Jr.: Miter
Thomas Guiry: Cantwell
Shea Whigham: Wilson
A 20th Century Fox release of a Regency Enterprises presentation of a Haft Entertainment/New Regency production. Director Joel Schumacher. Producers Arnon Milchan, Steven Haft, Beau Flynn. Executive producer Ted Kurdyla. Screenplay Ross Klavan & Michael McGruther. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique. Editor Mark Stevens. Music Nathan Larson. Production designer Andrew Laws. Set decorator Shawn R. McFall. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
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