Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Thin Red Line

By Marjorie Baumgarten

JANUARY 19, 1999: 

D: Terrence Malick; with Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Jared Leto, Dash Mihok, Tim Blake Nelson, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, Larry Romano, John Savage, John Travolta, Tom Jane, Miranda Otto. (R, 160 min.)

Majestically lyrical and maddeningly introverted, Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line is a one-of-a kind movie experience. Of all the things this mysterious writer-director may have accomplished during his 20-year absence from filmmaking, none of them included cozying up to the idea of conventional narrative structure. Malick's nonconformist stride to the beat of his own internal drums remains both his strength and his weakness. The Thin Red Line, his film adaptation of James Jones' WWII novel about the taking of Guadalcanal, is as visually stunning and emotive as anything you're likely to see this year yet as organizationally fitful and fractured as a philosophy student's dissertation. And at two hours and 50 minutes, The Thin Red Line certainly has the feel of an epic, but the film is less a standard-issue war picture than it is a meditation on the destructive relationship between Man and Nature. (It is both literally and figuratively a story about the world of men, the all-male enclave of the WWII combat soldier; the only women glimpsed in the film are in incidental shots of Melanesian natives and the sun-dappled flashbacks of a soldier fretting about his wife's fidelity back home.) To make his case for nature at war with itself, Malick begins his movie in a Melanesian Eden in which an AWOL soldier and his buddy are enjoying a castaway idyll on a peaceful chunk of beachfront. Then the soldiers storm the pristine beach. The story is simple; it follows the American troops as they struggle to overtake one strategic hill from the Japanese. It's a bloody and gruesome battle. But what remains most indelibly in the mind are specific images: the way the camera moves through the tall grass, the shots of exotically colored birds and prehistoric crocodiles, the random trajectory of a missile as it hits one target and not another, and most of all the look of terror etched in a man's face. This is what The Thin Red Line captures better than any other war film I can think of: the unvarnished expression of fear and trepidation on the faces of sane men who are staring into the maw of insanity. As consuming as these images are, there is also no question that the reason they remain the most indelible aspect of the movie is because there is so little character evolution or plot development to otherwise hang on to. The film does not want for a broad contingent of able young actors ready and capable of running their characters through their thespic paces. Instead, their stories are told through continuing voiceover monologues. Often it is confusing to determine which character is speaking (it doesn't help that two of the central characters played by Caviezel and Chaplin both have dark, brooding looks that are even more difficult to distinguish from each other underneath their soot, uniforms, and helmets) and even some of the top-billed players have no more than a couple lines of spoken dialogue. And what do they ruminate about in their voiceovers? Such things as the nature of evil, how we lost the goodness in ourselves, and whether we're all part of one big soul. Neither does it help that the occasional muddiness of the sound quality obscures random lines of dialogue. Despite having too little to do, the cast is excellent, especially Nolte, although an unbilled Travolta is uncomfortably cast in a cameo as a general and other marquee stars have meager screen time disproportionate to their star value (Clooney first appears in the picture only minutes from the end). The Thin Red Line will forever suffer from its release on the heels of one of the year's favorite sons: Saving Private Ryan. It invites undue comparisons between the two only because they are both WWII dramas. But in their storytelling and their objectives, the two couldn't be more different. Watching The Thin Red Line often reminded me of reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the book of James Agee prose that's coupled with Walker Evans' photographs of rural sharecroppers during the Depression: unforgettable riffs and images from an untenable state of existence. The Thin Red Line alternately draws us in and loses us in the murk. It's an astonishing achievement (and here the achievements of cinematographer John Toll, composer Hans Zimmer, and production designer Jack Fisk cannot be underestimated) that has more in common with Malick's two previous films, Badlands and Days of Heaven than any war movie we've ever known. Despite this film's narrative lapses, Malick has a unique way of distilling the poetry from the commonplace -- and for that precious gift we should say amen.
3.5 stars


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