I am on a constant search for excellent war movies, particularly since given their heightened states of tension and leaning towards the epic narrative, usually means that the product will at the very least be engaging and even entertaining. Of course, when I discover particularly enjoyable films within the genre they are usually the ones that take a huge stride in deconstructing some element of war, or in the case of Joel Schumacher's 2000 film completely rejecting the idea of filming war altogether. In fact, what makes Tigerland a bit distinct from its counterparts is that it never makes it beyond the training fields, yet manages to still include many of the elements of loss and confusion that are prevalent within a warfare riddled nation, particularly the politically fueled and ethically murky engagement that was Vietnam in America. While this film does rely on Colin Farrell for much of its performance and narrative, it is a bit varying from other war films in that it is occupied by established characters, who are, nonetheless, not the household names their masterful performances might suggest, this is very obvious in the work delivered by both Clifton Collins Jr. and one of my favorite working actors Michael Shannon, whose cameo is beyond awesome, although calling it such would suggest that the man has accrued a heavy degree of star power. I digress in my adoration for Shannon, but his scene paints a larger picture for the film which looks at the very debasing nature of training for war, one that is hinged loosely on an agreed upon following the rules, although everyone is aware of their absurdity, especially in the face of absolutely certain death in a foreign country. Shot with a grainy digital handheld camera and edited disjointedly, one wonders if Schumacher's film would not fit perfectly within the canon of Dogme 95, or at the very least borrows heavily from its push for realism, which results in images that either poetic or horrific, even becoming both in rare occasions. I am aware of people who will discount this as a war film because it does not have the sort of sweeping grandiose elements of the classics, but where those movies lavish in spectacle, Tigerland counters with a very real consideration of war and humanity.
Tigerland is set at the back end of Vietnam, at a moment when it was quite obvious that success was impossible and that the continual training of soldiers would result in more unnecessary deaths on both sides. Realizing this one soldier Private Bozz (Colin Farrell) takes it upon himself to become the guy who knows all the tricks and legal means with which to get out of the army, serving as a sort of boatman on the river of Thames who takes people from the hell of training back to their lives which by contrast seem angelic. These acts are of course heavily condemned by his superiors thus leading to his being constantly berated and demoted in hopes that he will eventually just succumb to the reality that he will end up in Vietnam. Bozz adamantly refuses this fact and takes to undermining his superiors while also picking out soldiers who he knows are better suited at home. One of Bozz's first undertakings allows him to help a young southern man return his wife and children on the grounds of hardship. His helpful actions earn him the respect and trust of another member of the war Jim Paxton (Matthew Davis) who has joined the war after a fallout with a woman during college. Bozz makes matters worse by constantly contradicting his appointed squad leader Miter (Clifton Collins, Jr.) who becomes the victim of insults and condemnation by drill sergeants who blame him for the insubordination of Bozz, even though it is made quite clear that they are displacing their own frustration upon the helpless Miter. Eventually, Bozz explains to Miter his purpose and through this explanation allows for Miter to obtain a discharge on basis of psychological issues. While enemies in the higher ranks are obvious, Bozz also makes enemies with the racist and violent Wilson (Shea Whigham) who due to his own psychological breakdown attempts to pull a gun on Bozz and Paxton, an act for which they attempt to get him court marshaled. While Bozz has done his best to avoid going to Vietnam he inevitably takes the next step and begins training, along with Paxton, in Tigerland, which is describe as the home front equivalent of Vietnam. It is there that the two realize Wilson has indeed been allowed to stay in the army despite his psychosis, leading to one final shootout, where Bozz takes the opportunity to wound Paxton just enough to not hurt him, but allow for him to avoid being sent overseas. Bozz himself is sent to Vietnam, and seems quite calm about his fate, only demanding that Paxton never write about him and forget about his presence altogether, although the closing voice over suggest that Bozz's reputation takes on almost mythic qualities.
It begs to be asked whether it is even possible to describe a film that never leaves the foot of a training camp as a proper war film. Of course, the training flick is a staple of war, whether it be the comedic films of World War II or something more recent like Stripes. However, these films often have a noticeable degree of comedy and light-heartedness about them since the characters shown are never really experience war. Tigerland takes its style more from the world of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket or Ridley Scott's G.I. Jane and argues that in a time of warfare, the haunting experience and psychological breakdown occurs far before stepping foot in the war zone, however, those two films do indeed extend beyond to consider the actual war, therefore adding the layer of reality to the fear and rage that had manifested itself up until that point. While it is acknowledged that Bozz does eventually step foot in Vietnam this occurrence is never visually verified and at the point in which this is explained the narrative has become Paxton's who also never steps foot in Vietnam. I would posit that the reason this works with such fluidity and narrative cohesion is almost entirely a result of the particularly infamous nature of Vietnam, then and now. The soldiers in the film are all aware of how terrible the situation is in Vietnam and were, for the most part, drafted involuntarily. Their respective anger and paranoia is not so much of having to fight for their country, but, more so, a result of knowing they will be doing so with assured futility. Where this film then extends beyond just claiming that Vietnam was a lost cause, is the post-Vietnam awareness of how terribly veterans were treated by the country who viewed them as child murders and rapists, completely ignoring that their engagements were forced. While characters like Wilson and the various drill instructors serve as the antagonists within the narrative, viewers cannot help but remember that nobody wants to be in the situation and any sort of reminder of its absurdity is only a reminder of their imminent demise. This realization helps to explain why Bozz is such a threat, because unlike Bozz who is attempting to destroy all things in a mindless rage, Bozz manages to get all to think about how complacent they are within their own down fall. Bozz rejects the war, he rejects the training for war, and attempts to hide it in indifference, when in fact he seems to care far more than any other person in the film, both about the sanity of hope, as well as about ending war both physically and metaphorically.
Key Scene: Michael Shannon explaining the benefits of battery shock torture is next-level acting.
This is one of the greater war films of this still burgeoning century and is cheap to get obtain. I highly recommend that you get a copy.