- Reviewed by: Avril Carruthers
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Current Rating 6.84/10 | 43 Votes
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Anna Paquin, Dean Stockwell, Elizabeth McGovern, Gabriel Mann, Leon Robinson, Shiek Mahmud-Bey, Michael Pena.
Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), the military supply clerk at the centre of this story about the oxymoronic peace-keeping army in Germany in 1989, is an antihero with echoes of Milo and Yossarian in Catch-22 and of Radar from M.A.S.H. He’s an opportunist and a petty criminal who joined the army to avoid going to jail. He furthers his career as a blackmarketeer and drug dealer through his blithe ability to manipulate his superior officer Colonel Berman (Ed Harris).
Ray’s voice-over at the beginning tells us, ‘Life for me is about distractions. I try to look up not down, but when I fall asleep I fall.’ His journey in the movie takes him beyond his fear of falling like a bomb, and though he doesn’t land exactly on his feet, his character at the end shows growth but little change. He continues as the banner holder for the main point the movie is making – that it is the nature and training of soldiers to push for any advantage in war or in peacetime.
Ed Harris puts in a beautifully judged comic performance as the dim but kind-hearted supply colonel who so lacks the kind of killer instinct needed to succeed in the army that it’s hard to swallow that he’s come this far. He’s easy meat for Ray as he is for Mrs Berman (Elizabeth McGovern), a self-serving princess for whom Ray has been providing other services.
A new kick-ass Sergeant with the hopeful name of Robert E Lee (Scott Glenn) arrives on the base. He’s got Ray’s number and intends to make his life hell. Ray returns the favour by taking out Lee’s very attractive daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin) on a date but instead falls for her. At the same time Ray and his cohorts seize an opportunity to escalate their blackmarketeering enterprise with a lost shipment of arms, and in the deal receive a far larger amount than they are used to of the wholesale raw heroin they have been regularly cooking.
The book by Robert O’Connor on which the film is based is prefaced by a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: ‘When there is peace, the warlike man attacks himself.’ Horrifying statistics quoted by director Gregor Jordan illustrate this. On the US army base in Germany at the time in which the film is set there were 20 to 30 murders a year, while an accidental death was reported every two days, on average. As we know from reports of so-called ‘friendly fire’ or ‘blue on blue’ incidents in the most recent Gulf War as well as those of other wars from WWI onwards, the danger is not restricted to peacetime. It is a fact of the war machine, whether engaged in war or at a loose end in peacetime, that random deaths and collateral damage will occur. The image of a largely indiscriminate and rampant killing force, only just reined in by army discipline, springs too readily to mind.
It is this larger framework in which the movie with its personal stories, which are not atypical, is set. Reminiscent of the stoned soldiers of Apocalypse Now and Jacob’s Ladder and echoing the military berserkers of many films including Platoon, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line the meme is inflamed violence, brutality, corruption among the troops and cover ups. For some reason however, perhaps its original timing, coming out just after September 11, it has rankled American preview audiences exceedingly, though the themes mentioned are not more harshly depicted than in the above movies.
Joaquin Phoenix is a far more sympathetic hero than the book’s protagonist, who is a murderer and a drug addict. Here, Ray holds our sympathy as a ‘good’ bad guy surviving on his dubious talents and the love story between him and Anna Paquin’s Robyn is portrayed as almost sweetly innocent. Scott Glenn’s performance as her father is convincingly sour and deranged.
Some brilliant scenes stay in the memory. There’s the letter concocted by Ray to a dead soldier’s parents explaining his accidental death in a more acceptably military fashion than the freakish actual event. There’s an armoured tank crew whacked-out on heroin who scarcely notice they’ve just flattened a VW beetle, barely allowing the passenger and driver to escape. There’s the heroin-cooking scene where an apocalyptic Jacob’s Ladder scenario ensues with dark comic effect. There’s a emotionally tense sequence and its astonishing aftermath, where Ray’s fear of falling is finally resolved.
The movie shows that the coolly conscious ones survive and flourish, while the unaware and manipulated do not. With its eponymous reference to the Buffalo Soldiers of the American Civil War as a blindly-directed, disenfranchised military machine held ticking over in readiness for any possible conflict, it’s as stringent an antiwar movie as you could hope to see. Director Gregor Jordan has delivered a powerful black comedy with penetrating ease.
© Avril Carruthers, 30th August 2003
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