Bucket List Movie #473: The Thin Red Line (1998)
Mention Terrence Malick's name, and very specific adjectives tend to pop up, "introspective" and "picturesque" heading the list. Malick has directed only a handful of films in his decades-long career, but the majority of them have been acclaimed hits and darlings of critics and film societies. Malick isn't afraid to make films that take their time, that allow long stretches of silence, and if there's no plot, then so be it. But his claim to fame is his cinematography; no matter which of his films you've seen, Malick doesn't shy away from breathtaking shots, usually occurring in nature. In a way, I rather admire this technique. As someone who gets bored after a while with "dark and gritty", lovely scenery is a nice, refreshing change.
The negative part of me wonders if Malick uses remarkable cinematography as a crutch for lackluster stories. Mind you, I've only seen a few of his movies, and while the idea of Malick's appeal to others is understandable, his work has been very hit or miss with me. I greatly loved Badlands for being the anti-Bonnie and Clyde, for showing murderous young criminals for the shallow, unimaginative, intellectually bankrupt white trash they were, all against a gorgeous landscape. Malick's other films, however, did little to win me over. Days of Heaven, while, again, being spectacular to look at, was an anemic remake of The Wings of the Dove (I'll take the 1997 adaptation any day) that suffered from boring, unsympathetic cardboard cutout protagonists and an annoying little kid for a narrator. And, yes, I plead guilty to being one of those people who "just didn't get" Tree of Life. I tried, goodness knows I tried to like it, but I found it ponderous and not worth my time. At least it helped make a star out of Jessica Chastain, so for that I'll always be grateful.
Thankfully, today's BLM, 1998's The Thin Red Line, falls into the "hit" spectrum for me. Released the same year as that other great WWII movie from the 90s, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line is based on James Jones's 1962 autobiographical novel of the same name. Its stream of conscious narrative focus on the inner lives of soldiers as they engage in the Battle of Mount Austen at Guadalcanal. The Thin Red Line marked Terrence Malick's return to film directing after a 20 year absence, and it's quite a comeback. Amazing visuals, fine acting, and an objective, nearly clinical view on war make this a thought-provoking parable about conflict and human nature.
The Thin Red Line is also a dizzying "who's who" in terms of casting. Want to get hammered in an instant? Make a drinking game of not only recognizing the dozens of established or rising stars while exclaiming (at least for most of them), "he's so young!" There's pre-Jesus Jim Caviezel as Pvt. Witt, a soft-hearted deserter who is dragged back into battle, pre-Oscar Adrian Brody as nervous young Corporal Fife, and pre-career ruining mug shot Nick Nolte as staggeringly heartless and incompetent Lt. Col. Gordon Tall, who makes Col. Jessup from A Few Good Men look honorable and reliable by comparison. As we see attacks commence (and go terribly wrong), marches through the jungle, or just waiting in trenches, we hear the inner monologues of the men, who wonder what they're doing there, be it in the war or on Earth. Many have both praised and criticized The Thin Red Line for being an anti-war story, but I didn't entirely get that sentiment, for's rather centrist in its storytelling. Much like The Hurt Locker, it is clear-eyed and pragmatic in showing war: not the glory, not just the hell (though we are treated to plenty of hellish scenes), but just what it is. It is an ugly, inescapable part of the human condition. Malick never judges the soldiers or why they fight, though he does understandably take a dim view of the inept leadership these men are supposed to follow.
One subplot I could have done without involves Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin)'s sun-dappled flashbacks of his wife (pre-Lord of the Rings Miranda Otto) and the couple's unpleasant outcome. I won't bother spoiling it, but it felt like an unnecessary slap in the face, given that there's a war going on. It also made me realize something rather unpleasant: I don't think Malick has the highest opinion of women. Don't misunderstand, I'm not implying he hates or fears women, but I feel Malick just has no use for women in his screenplays. They are either cyphers or satellite characters. It worked for Sissy Spacek in Badlands, for her character is a naïve, not-entirely-bright schoolgirl, but Brooke Adams in Days of Heaven had no will or personality of her own. Even Jessica Chastain in Tree of Life, for all her talent, failed to make her character any more interesting than she is on paper. In The Thin Red Line, Otto, a woefully underrated actress, is given nothing to do but exist as a luminous escape fantasy for a man to dream about. We know nothing about her except that she's married to Chaplin, and that plot development I vaguely mentioned earlier. Take her out of the movie, and the story loses nothing.
The Thin Red Line is available on Criterion blu-ray (woot!), and that was my first exposure to it. If you haven't seen it yet, it's a heck of way to see it for the first time.