Review: The Thin Red Line (SAx)

[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, January 6, 1999]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

Terrence Malick’s breathlessly anticipated return to the director’s chair The Thin Red Line rewrites the World War II platoon genre much the same way his directorial debut, Badlands, drove the ‘outlaw couple road film’ onto rarely explored backroads of the American unconscious. As the second ambitious war epic to emerge in the last year it’s bound to comparisons with Steven Spielberg’s much-lauded Saving Private Ryan, which plunged audiences into the overwhelming carnage of D-Day before settling into a platoon film narrative.

The Thin Red Line is even more sensory and far less conventional than Spielberg’s film. Malick explores the jungle vegetation with the same intensity as he presents the battles, the mental musings of over a dozen major characters simultaneously with their physical ordeal. The film is so full of delicately powerful images and privileged moments, it’s as if Malick has saved up his cinematic ideas all these years and poured them into this one film. The resulting film is once abstract and visceral, an overwhelming, overreaching, troubling masterpiece.

Ostensibly the film centers on two soldiers – Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel), who has gone AWOL to experience the South Seas idyll of a small native village, and First Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn), the cynical NCO who runs Charlie company and saves Witt from court martial – but Malick’s platoon’s eye view of World War II is so inclusive that he soon cuts the narrative loose from these two. After this dreamy prologue C-for-Charlie company, led by the frustrated career officer Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte), strikes at the Japanese troops dug in on the remote Guadalcanal island and the film wanders through the experiences of over a dozen soldiers and officers: Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin), who embraces the memories of his wife in repeated flashbacks, Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas), who risks insubordination to save his men from certain death, and Capt. Gaff (John Cusack), Tall’s protégé who rises to the call of leadership only to see the failings in his mentor, among others.

The film becomes a stylistic tour-de-force. A gliding camera surfs along the white tips of a hill covered in waist-high grass that conceals the sniping enemy, all flowing elegance and dispassionate observation as soldiers are torn apart and splayed in death. The climactic battle on the hilltop turns into a chaotic free-for-all, with staccato editing and jiggling you-are-there camerawork orchestrating the confusion. Even when the film bogs down in a week long battle reprieve, an admirable if frustrating attempt to show the men lost in inactivity, there is more going on in that twenty minute sequence than most American features can muster in their entire running time. At its best the film is alive with moments woven through the narrative: a soldier plays violin below deck before the attack, the sun comes out and turns the dull green grass a vibrant spring color moments before the charge up the hill, a spire of smoke glows with red coals as it rises from a burning hut.

Between battles Malick turns inward to the musings of the soldiers in voice-overs and off-camera dialogue while the camera takes stock of their jungle surroundings. Next to the army green and muddy faces of the soldiers, the verdant jungle teems with life while they bring nothing but death. No surprise that the most devastating images of the film are not of the dying troops but the effect on the life around them: a blade of grass with a single swash of human blood across it, a dying baby bird struggling across the jungle floor.

Malick has more feeling for the natural world than the social one, which becomes a barrier to connecting up with the human drama, and he’s so busy exploring the immediacy of each character’s experience that he neglects to ground any of them in a life. Only Bell has any connection to a world outside the war with his memories of marriage. With nary a “where you from, soldier?,” the rest of the cast are no better than enigmas, fascinating bundles of contradictions certainly but hardly realized characters, and the central enigma is Witt, the veritable child of nature hanging onto the idealized fantasy of his AWOL paradise.

The Thin Red Line reaches for no less than the struggle between man and nature, the transient ferocity of war set against the eternal majesty of a paradise lost. Not your typical war film and ultimately more than even Malick can accomplish in 170 minutes. But if his splintered drama finally uproots from too many perspectives and not enough grounding, the cinematic experience is nonetheless overwhelming. Layering in the sounds of war with the cacophony of human voices and Hans Zimmer’s moody score over cinematographer John Toll’s lush images and astoundingly beautiful shots, Malick creates one of the richest, densest, most contemplative films to emerge from Hollywood.


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