The Thin Red Line
Director: Terrence Malick. Cast: Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, Adrien Brody, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, John Cusack, Dash Mihok, Miranda Otto, Tim Blake Nelson, Larry Romano, Jared Leto, John Travolta, George Clooney. Screenplay: Terrence Malick (based on the novel by James Jones).

No privates are saved in Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, a daunting, thrilling, and invaluable film that nonetheless performs two wondrous recovery missions. One of these is that Malick rides in at the eleventh hour to redeem 1998, one of the worst movie years in history, with the sole great film to appear on American screens since 1997's Oscar and Lucinda. The other resurrection enacted in The Thin Red Line is that of Malick himself, who made two brilliant movies in the 1970s but has been absent and unlocatable, J.D. Salinger-style, since making Days of Heaven exactly 20 years ago. For those of us who wanted the auteur's return to be great—or for anything, ANYTHING, in 1998 to be great—The Thin Red Line is exactly what the doctor ordered.

The grand irony of that situation, however, is that this picture is the last one that can in any real way be called a crowd-pleaser. Audience comfort and even easy legibility are the last concerns weighing on the filmmakers' minds, but the challenges of this long, impressionistic, seemingly plotless film do not exist merely to frustrate the viewer or obscure Malick's meaning. War is not a digestible subject, much less an easy experience to endure or articulate. This adaptation of James Jones' 1962 novel dares to render without any laundering both the philosophical and physical desecrations exacted on man and nature by the events of war; that Malick refuses to forget that man and nature produce war as much as they suffer from it only enriches this picture and makes it more honest.

The opening sequence of The Thin Red Line finds two American soldiers AWOL among a group of South Pacific islanders. One of these soldiers, Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), supplies the movie its primary narrative voice, though the ensemble is so large and points of view alternate so frequently that nothing like a main character or "star" can truly be identified. Witt regularly rhapsodizes over the beauty of nature and the bliss of evading combat, though he is not so facile as to overlook the forces of conflict and antagonism that exist everywhere in the world, even outside the state of war. "What is this war in the heart of nature?" he apostrophizes in voice-over. "Why does nature vie with itself?" Shots of a crocodile slinking beneath the surface of a river and of muscular vines overtaking the jungle's large trees reiterate how the world is tough, crowded, and full of encroaching predators.

The problem with Witt, however—and Malick's pictures are always narrated by marginal and unreliable souls—is that he realizes that war is not anomalous within nature, but he nonetheless attempts to convince himself that he has found among the tribal people on his island a society exempted from nature's illnesses. He swims and plays with the young children, flirts rather gently with a smiling young woman, and looks off into the horizon with broad, na´ve grins. Soon, Witt and his comrade are caught and recaptured by a patrol boat of men from their old regiment. Witt receives a cold upbraiding for his avoidance of responsiblity by Sean Penn's Sergeant Welsh, to whom the younger man insists he has "seen another world" where the permanent state of violence and strain described by the cynical Welsh does not exist. Welsh faults Witt for his foolish misperceptions, though we sense more and more through the film that Penn's character admires Witt's idealism more than just a little. He just doesn't think it's practical, and war requires nothing but sheer, cutting pragmatism. Witt's false consciousness about the possiblity for peace on Earth will cause him much more trouble than the stern remonstrations of Sergeant Welsh. His hopefulness is both his most attractive quality and that which most elicits our pity and frustration.

The truth is that Witt is the last person on Earth, despite his revived commitment to the men of his squadron and his willingness to prove himself as a soldier, who can bear the particular mental and philosophical challenges of combat. Malick, who adapted Jones' novel himself, gives us early, subtle clues that Witt's starry-eyed conception of the Pacifical islands as earthly paradises are not to be trusted or indulged by the viewer. When Witt says to a woman of the tribe that the children never seem to fight, she replies with a gentle "Sometimes...," suggesting that there are darker sides to these people and their world than Witt is willing to perceive. He needs this world to be free of combat and degradation, and when he revisits this same tribe two hours or so into the film, the pestilence and rivalry he discovers there do not, as some critics have reductively asserted, comprise some easy attack on Malick's part against the corrupting influence of Western men on the exotic, privileged lives of indigenous peoples. It is Witt's daydreamy vision of these cultures, not any actual fact of life within them, that war has exposed as false and unfair.

It is hard to describe The Thin Red Line in anything like an orderly fashion, since the film itself weaves so many characters and themes with such dexterity and in such swift, delicate strokes. Malick often renders entire subplots in a few short moments divided by hefty amounts of screen time. It is also tempting to make The Thin Red Line sound more conventionally structured or plot-driven than it actually is. The ostensible centerpiece of the picture's action is the battle for Guadalcanal waged by American troops in 1942; though the battle sequences are stunningly well-choreographed and viscerally disturbing, the viewer is hard-pressed to delineate exactly when the "battle" stops or starts. Unlike Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, which screamed out against the horrors of war by depicting its participants as maniacs and its situations as surreally haunting, The Thin Red Line evokes equal (if not greater) horror by operating in such irregular, fitful rhythms, by juxtaposing the brutal with the banal, and by depriving both soldier and viewer of any sturdy foundation against which to measure their experience. Characters emerge and disappear with startling suddenness. Gun battles are interrupted as a venomous snake rears up to threaten the soldier, or as another sentry diverts his attention to the delicacy of the fronds among which he lies. The silences of the jungle are sometimes tranquil and sometimes sinister. Nothing is ever guaranteed.

Many audiences and critics have faulted The Thin Red Line for its seemingly arbitrary reversions to images of natural beauty, as if Malick's close-ups on the island's wildlife or vegetation were unnecessary window-dressing in a movie that could have been much shorter. On the contrary, if we cannot easily separate the shots of flora and fauna in The Thin Red Line from the fighting sequences, the intent is to ground the action specifically in a very particular time and place, as well as to demonstrate how war can never be viewed as a separate entity from the land on which it is fought, or from the natural order that, in Witt's language, so bafflingly "vies with itself." After all, the images of nature which Malick and the unbelievably skillful cameraman John Toll supply us—a lurking crocodile, an attacking viper, a sky full of bats—frequently exemplify the terror in nature as much as the beauty within it. Both war and the physical world are, like 2001's black monolith, startling and inscrutable visions that no one can look away or disengage from even upon realizing that they cannot be understood.

The characters who perceive and comprehend warfare the most shrewdly are those who understand, again ironically, that war in fact cannot be seen or comprehended in any organized, dependable way. In addition to the pragmatic Sergeant Welsh, Nick Nolte's bulldoggish commander Colonel Tall barks his orders in between reminders to his more soft-souled comrades that "Nature is cruel." Nolte's performance is a marvel of barely-controlled fury and a bridling need to prove his own fighting mettle; we know that Tall feels underestimated by his superiors and wishes to make Guadalcanal the arena in which he will earn the glory he deserves. It's a selfish and foolhardy ambition, and for all the joy he takes in pushing situations to their dangerous and occasionally reckless limits, he also tires himself profoundly by always striving to exceed some phantom observer's expectations. Nolte's first and last appearances onscreen find him in the middle of yawning; we see both the rage and the fatigue of a career soldier who fears he will never measure up to his own ridiculously high standards.

Ultimately, The Thin Red Line is able to sustain its image of war as absolute hell without making that message seem as hackneyed and worn-out as, in less wizardly hands, it might appear. Unlike Saving Private Ryan, this film does not introduce itself with a sequence documenting the madness of war, only to cheat itself—and us—by eventually forcing its characters to find meaning in all the madness, to latch onto some cooked-up notion of honor and nobility within what is always and above all a senseless and unruly occurrence. Spielberg's soldiers continue fighting because by doing so they shall build up their own characters; Malick's bleaker but more honest film insists that battle "turns men into dogs, poisons the soul," and we are at no point asked to determine what any of the protagonists have learned or drawn from their horrific experiences. The most that can be asked of them is that they prove flexible and intelligent enough to accept the insanity of their circumstances and adopt those modes of behavior and action that will best guarantee their survival. Dreamers who continue to plumb their circumstances for philosophical meaning or ultimate justification will at best be disappointed and at worst annihilated.

These are not easy ideas to accept, but they seem honest, and they at least have the virtue of remaining consistent through the picture. The Thin Red Line is difficult to watch, not only because of its demands on the audience to make their own meaning out of the picture's words and images—a gesture made all too seldom in modern films—but because the fundamental lessons and conclusions of this picture are, as befits the subject, harsh and endlessly discomforting. More than once Malick forces us to watch as a character perishes, but he also demonstrates that humanity can be as resilient and innovative as the rest of the natural world in defeating its own impulses to destroy itself. War claims a number of victims in The Thin Red Line, some of them well-known to us and many of them anonymous masks of suffering crying out across a preternaturally green sea of grass. Still, some souls survive, and the last image of the film is one of the tenacity with which all natural beings sustain themselves and flourish, even among conditions that seem utterly unnurturing.

Malick's film is as technically well-assembled as one could ask, and the exquisite photography is unmatched even by Toll's similarly epic-scale work on Mel Gibson's Braveheart. In the end, however, it is not The Thin Red Line's artfulness but its healthy and too-rare loyalty to worldly realities that make me value it so highly. Here are a film and a filmmaker who know the world we live in and do not attempt to clean it up for us; they merely show the world at its absolute worst, and by doing so, create an artwork of the absolute highest order. The range of emotions is much more varied than the permanent despondency I have described, and in fact, Malick generously makes room for more than a handful of characters to show us how they understand the war and how they variously interpret the madness around them into terms they can understand. A chronicle of how war assaults our ability to think and to feel, The Thin Red Line itself enables deeper thought and emotion than any American film of the year. A


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Director: Terrence Malick
Best Adapted Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Best Cinematography: John Toll
Best Film Editing: Billy Weber, Leslie Jones, and Saar Klein
Best Original Score: Hans Zimmer
Best Sound: Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer, and Paul Brincat

Other Awards:
Berlin Film Festival: Golden Bear (Best Picture); Honorary Award (John Toll)
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Director; Best Cinematography
National Society of Film Critics: Best Cinematography
Satellite Awards: Best Picture (Drama); Best Director; Best Cinematography; Best Original Score; Best Ensemble Cast

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