Pajiba's Underappreciated Gem: Tigerland / Dustin Rowles
Underappreciated Gems | November 15, 2007 | Comments ()
One of the more brain-sapping conundrums for me is squaring my firecrotch-hot disdain for Joel Schumacher with his actual body of work. Here’s a director responsible for some of the worst films released over the last 20 years: Phone Booth, The Number 23, Dying Young, and the worst blockbuster of all-time, Batman and Robin. And yet, he also helmed Lost Boys, Flatliners and St. Elmo’s Fire, pleasures for which one feels varying degrees of guilt, but a pleasures all the same. But in 2000, so soon after Batman and Robin and 8 mm, if someone had asked me to pay to see a Joel Schumacher film, I would’ve laughed at them, yanked out their nose hairs, and then kicked them down a flight of stairs. Indeed, the only reason I found myself in a theater watching Tigerland was because I didn’t know anything about it and it was the only thing on the marquee that I hadn’t seen.
Indeed, the makers of Tigerland were wise to eschew opening credits all together, immediately situating us in 1971, on a military vehicle headed for a proto-Vietnam training camp in Louisiana, with a close-up of a then unknown Colin Farrell. And thank God, because had I seen “directed by Joel Schumacher” at any point before the film faded to black, I might have walked out on principle alone. Fortunately, I was kept in the dark until it was too late, and unless you see it for yourself, there’s probably little I can do to convince you that a movie directed by Schumacher and starring Colin Farrell — seven years before his luster had completely faded under the harsh lights of Miami Vice — was any damn good.
But, it is. In fact, while it’s no stretch to say that it’s Schumacher’s best effort to date, it’s also one of the better boot camp films, only a few notches below the first half of Full Metal Jacket. Certainly, it has all the boot camp clichés — hard-ass superior officers who speak in strings of profanity, naïve kids in way over their head, lousy Southern accents, a wiseass who refuses to conform, and, of course, a soldier/writer documenting it all. But Schumacher and his cheap film stock and shaky handheld 16 mm camera (a novelty at the time) also managed to craft a brutally honest, surprisingly affecting film about the Vietnam experience, or at least, the experience of knowing you’re about to be shipped off to die in a war that you have no vested interest in. Indeed, if Tigerland were made today, the thematic parallels to our current war would have felt too obvious and maybe a little exploitative, not unlike the slew of war films currently hitting theaters, many of which are quite good but nevertheless seem to utilize the audience’s built-in anti-war sentiment to drive the narrative. Tigerland, released before 9/11, had no such sentiment upon which to capitalize — it was a film weirdly out-of-place during a year in which cross-dressing black men in fat suits dominated the marketplace, which is probably why no one ever saw it (it’s total box-office take topped out at a crummy $140,000).
Loosely based on the experiences of co-writer Ross Klavan, the film focuses on a platoon of soldiers on their last stop before heading off to war. Private Baxton (Matthew Davis) is a writer who enlists for the thrill of experience; he befriends Private Roland Bozz (Farrell), a cocky, wise-ass, defiantly pacifist Texan who not only questions the war, but actively seeks to get himself thrown out of the army before he’s sent to be killed. He talks back to superior officers, walks away from training drills, and leaves base to cavort with prostitutes, reasoning, “What’s the worst they can do? Send me off to Viet-fucking-nam?”
The drill sergeants — all cut from the same Lee Ermey cloth — take their ire with Bozz out on the other soldiers, beating the hell out of them, threatening to electroshock their testes, and generally making their lives a living hell, believing Bozz’ underlying sense of solidarity will eventually force him to quit his shenanigans for the good of his fellow soldiers. Instead, Bozz — a self-taught expert in the military code — goes one better; he gets them sent back home via various technicalities and hardship loopholes. However, the officers in charge do eventually figure out a way to temper him: They make him the platoon sergeant, a position he takes reluctantly, but eventually excels at, leading up to the climactic scenes in Tigerland, an environment simulated to be as much like fighting in Vietnam as possible, made even more dramatic by a psychotic soldier who has it in for Bozz.
Narrative aside, it’s really the brutal naturalism of the film that makes it a genuinely worthwhile viewing (yeah, I know — Schumacher? Brutal naturalism?). Taking place after the My Lai incident, when the country had already grown disillusioned with the Vietnam war,Tigerland is a gritty, intense examination, not of the war itself, but of the psychology behind it. It focuses on the mindfuck the war plays on the soldiers and what goes through their heads knowing that they’re basically training for their ultimate deaths, and the drill sergeants constantly remind them that they’ll probably return home in body bags. It is occasionally sentimental (Schumacher without sentimentality is like John Woo without guns), and the allegory is a little overplayed, but Farrell transcends even that, displaying what it was about him that eventually elevated him to stardom. He is absolutely sensational in Tigerland, giving a mouth-dropping performance that resonates long after the film has ended. Unfortunately, Farrell hasn’t yet lived up to promising potential he showed in Tigerland, while Schumacher has only proven that even the worst directors can fluke into greatness occasionally.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.