movie review by
David Ng

The Thin Red Line


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Trying to summarize Terrence Malick's film The Thin Red Line would be as futile as summarizing a poem. You could describe its plot and action in infinite detail, but you would never capture its essence. The meaning of a poem, after all, resides in its rhyme, meter, and perspective. And until you examine these components, the poem won't unfold properly. In this respect, The Thin Red Line is closer to verse than to cinema. How it approaches its story -- its camera movement, editing, and sound -- is more important than the story itself.

To comprehend this sometimes incoherent, sometimes lucid, often challenging film, we must treat it like a poem. How does Malick piece the scenes together to form a cinematic verse? What kind of rhythm does the film achieve? Whose eyes are we watching the action through?

The Thin Red Line has no single protagonist -- no hero whose single vision shapes the film. Instead, Malick gives us a canvas of faces and voices, most of them nameless. The eyes of the film belong not to one soldier, but to all soldiers. Together, they form the vision of a collective spirit that meanders among them, tapping into their thoughts as the bullets whiz past. Sometimes we can hear what they are thinking (through voice-overs); sometimes we watch their memories (in glowing, slow motion flashbacks). The free-moving camera, always floating just inches above the soldiers' muddied kevlars, unifies their movements, their faces, and their thoughts into a single being. It intersects them at the same subconscious level, binding them into spiritual brotherhood.

The film's rhythm breaks all the rules of a war movie. Malick is more interested in creating moods than in building a plot. And in a sense, he tells a story that was already underway before we joined and will continue well after we depart. This frees him from editing the film along plot lines and enables him to approach it abstractly. Intense battle scenes are intercut with scenes such as wind moving across the grass, water cascading off a leaf, or a crocodile submerging itself in a pond. These seemingly extraneous visuals take on supreme importance when edited directly into the bloodshed. It's as though the soldiers, when faced with death, have regressed back to nature. They are primal now, and Malick is following the rhythm of their minds as terror and purity fight for dominance.

Possibly the most primal scene occurs early in the film as Charlie Company marches in file through Guadalcanal's rain forest. A native man approaches them on foot. He is old, has a shaggy beard and an unruly head of hair. He passes the army unit without acknowledging it, without even seeming to see it. The soldiers in turn stare quizzically at this local curiosity. Who is he? What is his business? Is he God? Is God ignoring us?

As a war movie, The Thin Red Line is oddly pensive. It contemplates its own action, its own carnage, and its own chaos. The soldiers are shown in thoughtful repose as often as they are shown avoiding gunfire. "Your children don't fight," notices one soldier of Guadalcanal's indigenous people. These soldiers are true poet-warriors in the Ancient Greek sense. When that same soldier realizes he's about to die, the camera concentrates on his face. There is silence -- no music, no gunfire. He recognizes the face of death, contemplates it, and chooses not to resist.

Why has Malick has created a war movie whose quiet scenes contain more raw power than its most graphic depictions of battle? The fighting is almost an after thought. The film's most intense confrontation, involving the capture of a Japanese bunker atop a hill, occurs halfway through the movie, followed by a long denouement in which ideas and confusion resolve themselves. Placing scenes of deep introspection after scenes of carnage, Malick deliberately arranges his cinematic verse around anti-climax. After the Japanese bunker is captured, the commanding colonel (Nick Nolte), a despotic, career-driven alpha male, sits quietly, whittling, staring at something incomprehensible. We don't know what he's thinking, and we don't need to know. He has achieved a military victory and has found that on the other side of glory lies a resounding silence.

Though comparisons to Saving Private Ryan are inevitable, The Thin Red Line's preference for these enigmatic voids separates it from its louder, more outspoken cousin. Malick doesn't recreate war as Spielberg does; he isn't interested in realism. The Thin Red Line, like Oliver Stone's Platoon, veils the incoherence of the battlefield with detachment. We somehow remain apart from the action, as if it were a memory. Putting distance between us and the soldiers, and, in certain scenes, between the soldiers and the fighting itself, The Thin Red Line becomes an abstraction of War a cinematic ballet of killing and confusion.

Despite our detachment, the soldiers never degenerate into war stereotypes. Their minds are completely exposed to us; no thoughts or ideas remain hidden. Consequently, they are honest when they are deceptive and sympathetic when they are nasty. From Nolte's teeth-gnashing colonel to Sean Penn's no-bullshit sergeant, Malick (who adapted the screenplay from the James Jones novel) trusts that we'll find something salvageable buried within these disillusioned wrecks.

Francois Truffaut once described filmmaking as achieving balance between "poetry and journalism." Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan is arguably a journalistic film: it depicts rather than evokes World War II. It progresses from beginning to end and never strays from its mission. The Thin Red Line is the antithesis of Spielberg's movie. It doesn't have a destination. Like the spirit that unifies its soldiers, Malick's filmmaking meanders here and there, picking up what it can, moving on to something else. War thereby becomes a dream-state. Malick sacrifices clarity, narrative flow, and maybe even commercial acceptance in the name of sustaining the film's poetic heritage.

Even the most realistic scenes in The Thin Red Line feel like they're couched in a reverie. The soldiers are jolted awake by incoming mortar shells or exploding grenades; they spring to action with gung-ho clarity; and when all is done, they naturally retreat back into their thoughts. Malick films physical confrontations as sudden bursts of consciousness, as something temporary and ethereal. They don't persist in the soldiers' minds or in our minds. They evaporate from our subconscious. For Malick, battle scenes are merely catalysts for pondering the question one soldier asks, "How did we lose the good that was given us?"

Ever since Francis Ford Coppola made Apocalypse Now, the War-is-Hell theme has become the darling subject of many famed directors, and so Malick isn't saying anything new here. But by tackling a tired subject with fresh perspective, he has wrested his film from the jaws of cliche. He has also avoided stamping his name all over it (as Stanley Kubrick did in Full Metal Jacket), and rescues it from narcissistic meditation. The Thin Red Line is a rare personal film the feels like a generous gift to mankind's collective conscience. After twenty years of retirement, Terrence Malick proves that he can still tread the thin line between poetry and journalism, dreams and reality, film and life.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]