Love a film, hate a film, all points in between–I generally know what I want to say and how to say it. So why, then, do I feel so ill-equipped to thoroughly articulate my feelings about Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line? Perhaps it’s just my own limitations as a writer, or maybe it’s just the natural limitations of words themselves, which can only fail to accurately describe the challenging but wholly intoxicating experience of Malick’s long-awaited return to the directorial chair. The Thin Red Line is something that completely transcends the medium–a film is as close to pure poetry than anything I’ve ever seen onscreen.
To state that The Thin Red Line centers on a group of American soldiers fighting for survival in the Guadalcanal conflict of World War II is to say everything and nothing about the film. A number of violent combat scenes occupy most of the film’s three-hour running time, but the war itself is perhaps Malick’s most remote concern–and the soldiers’. The central fight in which the soldiers are engaged is not necessarily the one with Japanese troops: it is the unique personal struggle within each of them. And the one thing whose survival their fighting for is not their lives, but their eternal souls.
Malick uses his favorite device, the voiceover (used extensively in both of his previous films, 1973’s Badlands and 1978’s Days of Heaven), to intone each of the soldiers’ inner ruminations. Yet while the sounds of the voices and their specific subjects differ, the “voice” remains constant: a stream of oblique thoughts attempting to rationalize–and find an escape from–the horror of war and the world that produces it. Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) searches for the light of beauty and order in all things, from life in a simple native village to a comrade meeting a tragic end. Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) longs to find a numbness and truth that will spare himself the psychological toll of his reality. Pvt. Bell’s (Ben Chaplin) retreat is memories of his wife and his certainty that they will be reunited–whether it be in this world or the next. Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas) prays his salvation and that of the soldiers that have become surrogate family. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte), a much-passed-over veteran in the twilight of his career, doggedly pursues the one victory under his command that would serve as a vindicating legacy.
The Thin Red Line plays less like a film than a piece of fine art, which accounts for the immeasurable difficulty of describing and analyzing it (and the rather dull-sounding synopsis). Malick’s screenplay, based on James Jones’s novel of the same name, is a remarkably textured piece of work, directly and (mostly) indirectly addressing themes of varying complexity. As such, like a painting, one needs to distance oneself to experience the full breadth of its thematic resonance; the film just grows richer with time.
But also like a painting, the film is not without its surface delights that can be immediately noticed and appreciated. Chief among these is John Toll’s exquisite cinematography, which captures the beauty of both the stillness and chaos that comes with battle, from blades of grass blowing in the wind, to the mine and bomb blasts that seem to erupt to a steady rhythm. Not to be overlooked is the fine work of the large cast. Pvt. Witt is the character closest to a lead, and newcomer Caviezel has a quiet, calming presence that fits his character’s–and the film’s–low-key mood. That said, I much preferred the work of two actors in smaller roles: Chaplin, heartbreaking as the lovelorn Pvt. Bell; and Koteas, touching as the perhaps too-honorable Capt. Staros. Of the more marquee names in the ensemble, Penn, Nolte, and (to a lesser extent) John Cusack (as Capt. Gaff) have the beefiest roles, and they impress the most in this group. Cameos by John Travolta and especially George Clooney are more distracting than anything else, and Woody Harrelson tries a bit too hard to stand out among the crowd–and that he does, albeit for the wrong reasons.
The word that will undoubtedly be used most to describe The Thin Red Line is “meditation,” and that description could not be more apt. A person in a state of meditation outward appears to be doing nothing, but he or she is engaging in an act of focus and clarity full of rich internal rewards. The similarly introspective nature of The Thin Red Line accounts for the wildly polarized reaction to the film; its detractors are obviously fixed on the blank exterior, while its admirers are able to tap into the dense interior. Chances are most audiences will belong to the former group. But much like another war-set film not really about war, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line will receive its just due over time.