Tigerland

Toronto Festival–Though it doesn't break much new ground thematically, Tigerland, Joel Schumacher's Vietnam War movie, is a tautly-focused, well-executed drama that represents his most coherent and satisfying work since Falling Down, back in 1993. Set in 1971, the highly intense narrative centers on the group dynamics within one platoon in its last phase of basic training, before being shipped to Vietnam. A terrific cast of mostly unknowns is toplined by Colin Farrell, an Irish actor whose physical handsomeness and charismatic persona speak well for a vital Hollywood career. It's been a long time since a major studio has released a Vietnam war film, which may help Tigerland, but, even under the best circumstances, critical support and effective marketing will be crucial for the positioning of this intimately-scaled Fox picture.

A follow-up to Flawless, Tigerland continues the new trend in Schumacher's career, namely, making smaller, more personal films, that stand in sharp contrast to the Batman and other “big event” movies he made in the past decade. In many respects, Tigerland is helmer's most independent and experimental work, the closest a major Hollywood movie has come in exhibiting the tenets of Dogma 95 school, spearheaded by Lars von Trier and others. Stylistically, new film relies on a restless hand-held camera, natural lighting as much as possible, avoidance of the more typically emotional Hollywood score, and so on.

Thematically, Tigerland belongs to a cycle of Vietnam movies that focused on the internal psychology of a small fighting unit, most notably Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Hamburger Hill. The novel point of Ross Klavan and Michael McGruther's well-honed script is its setting: Story begins at Fort Lake, Louisiana, then switches to Tigerland, a wilderness designated by the army for jungle combat simulation–the very last stop before Vietnam.

The tightly-structured narrative introduces half a dozen characters as they enter the final stage of infantry training in
A-Company, Second Platoon. Initially, the only things the men share in common are their young age and the realization that they are trapped in a morally questionable war that has created sharper polarization in American society than any other war. As the specter of actual combat hangs over the men, they are forced to deal with the most painful and scariest issue of all: Death.

Other than that, the men are widely diverse in their motivations to fight and their approaches toward survival. As the story begins, Private Jim Paxton (Matthew Davis), who serves as the narrator, observes that he expects the war to inform his writing, a romantic notion that he himself admits to have drawn from such macho writers as Hemingway and James Jones (the latter's book, The Thin Red Line, was made into a movie by Terrence Malick in 1998). Paxton is a naive idealistic soldier who chose to enlist.

Contrasted with him are Miter (Clifton Collins Jr.), a sensitive boy who hopes to prove himself as a real man in combat, and Wilson (Shea Whigham), a brute with a killer's mentality and a disturbing zeal for bloodshed. Also belonging to the clique are Cantwell (Thomas Guiry), who simply resigns himself to the inevitable, and Johnson (Russell Richardson), a brave and honest black soldier.

The center is occupied by a rebellious anti-hero, Roland Bozz (Farrell), whose defiance of the army rules and regulations will ultimately galvanize every member of the platoon. A college dropout, with a number of runnings with the law, Bozz is a modern version of James Dean-Marlon Brando, with a touch of Montgomery Clift (in From Here to Eternity). Just released from the base stockade, Bozz makes no secret that he wants out of the army, perhaps even escape to Mexico.

The first two acts revolve around Bozz's stagings of small acts of protest, for which, not only he, but the entire platoon is punished. Scripters do a fine job of disclosing bits and pieces of Bozz's inner self as he operates under pressure, ultimately building the whole tale around his gradual transformation from an immature youngster to a responsible leader with natural skills to command.

As tight and suspenseful as the text is, it doesn't exist in a vacuum, and audiences will inevitably compare it with other Vietnam movies. Indeed, Tigerland suffers in comparison to Full Metal Jacket, which set a record at the time for foul lingo, harsh army discipline and military abuse. However, unlike, say, Hamburger Hill, in which the tensions were along race lines, or Platoon, in which a new recruit was asked to choose between two sergeants-surrogate fathers who represented good and evil, in Tigerland, the conflict is not between abstract doctrines, but between personalities of fully-fleshed individuals.

It's a tribute to the writers that they translate the ideological lines that split America's collective conscience into utterly specific, realistic and credible situations that highlight the soldiers' range of attitudes from patriotism to fatalism. This is particularly evident in two climactic scenes that make it abundantly clear that the real “enemy” was within the unit rather than without. In its good moments, which are plentiful, Tigerland recalls Streamers, David Rabe's forceful play (and later Altman's movie), which was set in an earlier phase of the war but also served as a parable about manhood and death.

Schumacher's decision to use unknown actors has paid off: The faces are fresh and innocent as they should be. Each of the ten or so actors is given at least one big dramatic scene, as if they were performing on stage, though the film is not theatrical at all. From the very first scene, audience sympathy is with Farrell, who shines as the subversive yet basically decent lad whose cynicism may be the only sane reaction to an insane situation. The entire ensemble is excellent, from Davis' would-be writer to Whigham, whose insecurities and zeal to kill lead to horrific consequences.

Assisted by the inventive lenser Matthew Libatique (who shot Darren Aronofsky's Pi and Requiem for a Dream), Schumacher employs a semi-documentary style, keeping his dynamic camera close to the action, always reflecting reality from the grunt's P.O.V. Pic's overall impact derives in no small measure from helmer's choice to avoid tripod and dolly in favor of hand-held 16mm camera. Both technically and emotionally gratifying, Tigerland demonstrates that it's still possible to make small, intimate, and personal movies within the Hollywood studio system.