The Thin Red Line (1998)


          In the history of American cinema, it's doubtful that there is another
  filmmaker like Terrence Malick. His reputation rests on two visually-stunning,
  haunting films made in the 1970s,
BADLANDS, which re-interpreted the Charles
  Starkwell-Carol Fugate murder spree of the 1950s, and
DAYS OF HEAVEN, an
  almost biblical romantic triangle. Both were well-crafted, received critical kudos,
  achieved cult status and hardly set any box-office records. Malick as a
  movie maker is less interested in conventional storytelling and more concerned
  with creating philosophical mood pieces. Frequently employing voice-over
  narration, there are long stretches in the films that are wordless. One feels that
  perhaps he is was born too late, that he could have achieved success when
  films were silent. Yet each is distinguished by haunting naturalistic imagery.
  One thinks of the vistas against which Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek move
  in
BADLANDS or the stark farmland in DAYS OF HEAVEN. These are works of art,
  unconventional, moody. Not much seems to happen yet much occurs. Malick is
  both painter and poet rolled into one, using film in a personal manner and
  speaking in an unique voice.

          
DAYS OF HEAVEN was released in 1978 (after a two-year gestations
  period in the editing room) and Malick seemed poised for anything. So, it was
  surprising that he seemingly walked away and disappeared. An eccentric, he
  has acquired an almost Garboesque aura. In the late 1980s, he reportedly
  began work on the script for his third feature,
THE THIN RED LINE, an
  adaptation of James Jones' war novel. Around the same time, there was talk
  of a Broadway debut as a playwright, but that project (
SANSHO THE BAILIFF)
  fell through. After nearly a decade, Malick returned to work behind the camera
  to shoot his meditation on war and its effects in Australia. The media went
  into overdrive and the heavily hyped film, his first in 20 years, has made it to
  the screen.

          If one remembers that to approach a Malick film, one must put aside
  all notions of convention and allow the material to unfold in its way,
  
THE THIN RED LINE (which according to the novel refers to the separation
  between madness and sanity) proves to be a flawed masterpiece. Clocking in
  at close to three hours, it is a tad overlong and there are some sequences that
  one might argue could be excised without sacrificing the intent. Still, there is
  much to admire as well. The first sequence in the film shows a crocodile
  skimming along the surface and then there is an interlude which shows two
  AWOL soldiers enjoying life among the Melenesian natives. After this idyll, in
  which the director introduces one of the film's main characters, Witt (played by
  James Caviezel in a star-making turn), who philosophizes in voice-over, the
  men are captured and returned to combat. The action shifts to show the
  preparations for the battle of Guadalcanal which forms the backdrop for the
  main events. Soldiers come and go, and as narrative is not one of Malick's
  strong suits, it takes a major commitment by the audience in viewing the film.
  Superbly shot by two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll, the film
  begins to acquire an hallucinatory beauty. The lush greenery of the jungle
  recalls Eden and Malick's intent seems to be to retell the Genesis story of
  the fall of man with Witt as Adam. There are arresting sequences, such as
  an attempt to take a bunker held by Japanese soldiers, and a strafing of a
  Japanese stronghold that easily can be seen as an allegory for Vietnam as well.

          There is no one central character that dominates the action. Malick, like
  fellow maverick George Lucas, is not known as a director's actor, so the cast
  is almost superfluous and interchangeable. Cameos by "name" actors like
  George Clooney and John Travolta detract a bit, and the novel's narrator, Fife
  (played by Adrien Brody) has been reduced to a virtual walk-on with perhaps
  two lines. Instead, the writer-director focuses briefly on certain characters.
  Those who come to dominate the most screen time are Tall (Nick Nolte in
  one of his best screen performances), the aforementioned Witt, Bell
  (well-played by Brit Ben Chaplin), who has reveries about the wife he left
  behind, and Staros (a strong Elias Koteas), a lawyer by training who parses
  orders in order to save the lives of the men in his command. Sean Penn,
  dropping the 'Actor' mannerisms that sometimes overpower his performances,
  also has a few quietly affecting moments in what feels like a truncated role.

          Malick's film has drawn comparisons with Steven Speilberg's over-praised
  (at least in my opinion)
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN both of which contained
  similar plot points (a beach landing, taking a German bunker, etc.). Such debate,
  though, reminds me of what occurs in the realm of Broadway musicals with
  partisans of Stephen Sondheim squaring off against those of Andrew
  Lloyd Webber. It is clearly an academic issue. There is room for both: the
  popular (Spielberg, Lloyd Webber) and the esoteric (Sondheim, Malick). Each
  will have champions but those open-minded individuals who are willing
  to sample and/or to embrace both will be the more enriched. I suspect that
  Malick's film will require repeated viewings and that it will eventually acquire
  the status it deserves. Like his two other produced features, it is
  one-of-a-kind.


                   Rating:                 B+                                
                   MPAA Rating:        R for realistic war violence and language
                   Running time:       170 mins.
© 2005 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.