Thin Red Line, The
9/10 (sometimes crosses into cheese territory)
This is in the running for my favorite war movie of all time. Try to imagine a WWII film directed by a man who graduated summa cum laude in philosophy from Harvard and has published a translation of Heidegger´s The Essence of Reason (both true of Malick), and you might get some idea about what to expect from “The Thin Red Line.”
It had the bad timing to premiere after “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998, which undoubtedly kept audiences away. They were also apparently scared off by the fact that it featured no “traditional dialogue” or even a “discernible plot.” Viewers can be so picky that way! Make no mistake: this movie is better than “Saving,” though not nearly as accessible. If I were to make an analogy with tools, I would say that the difference between “Saving” and “Thin” is the difference between a sledgehammer and a sculpting chisel. They have two different purposes, and the sledgehammer is more exciting, but if you invest the effort the chisel will produce the more aesthetically pleasing result every time.
As I’ve already hinted, plot is rather secondary but involves an absurd attempt to conquer a strategically worthless island in the Pacific theater, just to inflate the credentials of an aspiring officer (Nick Nolte). It is more or less centered around the Christ-like Private Witt (Jim Caviezel, who ironically would interpret the actual Christ shortly after in Gibson´s “Passion”). He has such a wide-eyed, loving-kindness view of the world that he serves as inspiration (or annoyance) to everyone around him. Really though, the movie is an existential meditation on war and its effect on man and nature.
It features amazing cinematography and a memorable score highlighted by the spectacular and goosebump-inducing Melanesian chants featured when Witt has deserted to a remote Pacific island.
The movie’s acting is perhaps its strongest point, featuring consistently powerful performances from Caviezel, Nolte, Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, Woody Harrelson, Adrien Brody, John Cusack, Ben Chaplin and John Savage, the first four being the standout stars. If that list of names doesn’t impress you, look at who else has cameos: Clooney, Travolta, John C. Reilly, Jared Leto, Nick Stahl. If that list doesn’t impress you, look at who Malick filmed but decided to leave out of the film altogether (!): Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, pre-LOTR Viggo Mortensen and Mickey Rourke. What does this list of actors tell you about the movie? 1) Everyone and their father wanted to be in it (Leo, Brad, Johnny, Nic Cage, Costner, and Ed Norton were also interested) and 2) Malick was so sure of his film (and had such big balls) that he was able to cut some of the biggest names in Hollywood from appearing at all.
The real reason I love this movie, however, is that it´s the first movie I ever saw that actually made me feel the unwavering terror and despair of war. Traditional war movies have the tough guy mercenary-like soldiers that are hauling around their machine guns and gleefully mowing down Charlie, or the Krauts, or (insert enemy name here). “The Thin Red Line” has a bunch of terrified 18-year-olds being led by all-too-human sergeants and captains, and they actually hesitate before following the order to charge, like I imagine I would do. You have one sergeant having a nervous breakdown and deserting his post and another pulling a damn “rookie” stunt and blowing his own guts out with a grenade.
“Saving Private Ryan” also does this to an admirable extent, conveying the psychological horror of war, but Spielberg has nothing on Malick when it comes to bringing the audience inside these soldiers´ heads in order to vicariously experience one of the greatest existential nightmares imaginable. Perhaps it’s just the fantastic acting, or maybe it’s the way Malick moves the camera. All I know is that it works with a vengeance.
Malick conveys this terror so well that it almost makes me wonder if it’s not an exaggeration, which is part of my only complaint about the film. One would almost have the impression that every soldier acts like a whimpering fool when faced with their first battle. Which is to say that it´s impactful, but I´m not completely sure how truthful. But I guess the only people who can let us know are actual soldiers who have seen such combat.
My only other complaint is that Ben Chaplin´s Private Bell writes the cheesiest love letters to his wife at a couple of different moments, spoken in voiceover with sentimental music and imagery. Granted, it has little to do with the film’s overall effect, but it distracts me every time I see it. And now it will distract you if it wasn’t already doing so.
Bottom line: you know nothing about war films, nor are you qualified to even talk about good war films, until you’ve seen this movie. For best effect though, do yourself a favor and wait until you’re in a heavy, patient, philosophical mood.
20 March 2010