Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Thin Red Line (1998) A Film by Terrence Malick

The Thin Red Line is the most thoughtful war film ever made because it aims not to make any simplistic anti-war political statements but rather views war from a more cosmic perspective, questioning the epistemology of it and lamenting its effect on nature. Of course, this being a Terrence Malick film, nature has several different manifestations here: the landscape, the internal mind, the collective - in a word, everything. The film's effectiveness becomes clear when its finest segments are not when battles are taking place but rather when they cease. It is there that Malick discovers the endless philosophical weight in the downtime, in the moments of calm contemplation for the banged-up and horrified gang of American soldiers fighting in the remote island of Guadalcanal in World War II. In this surreal landscape of beauty and destruction, bloodied soldiers Sgt. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn) and Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) debate secularism vs. spiritualism, Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin) longs for his wife (Miranda Otto) back home, Captain James Starros (Elias Koteas) struggles maintaining a commitment to combat while also preserving the lives of his brethren, Lt. Col. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte) loudly asserts his authority over others, and Private Doll (Dash Mihok) desperately tries to conceal his staggering fear. Malick simultaneously shines a light on all of these characters' stories while also democratically treating them as no more important than the landscape they inhabit and indeed part of it.

All of these characters - a richly evocative ensemble that is a testament to Malick's unmistakable and rarely praised skill with actors - have an inner softness to complement their hardened exteriors, just as nature possesses an element of wonder (the trees, the rivers, the dirt, all nurtured by Malick's camera) and an abysmally dark side (the war itself). For a film with such a vast number of A-listers (George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Adrien Brody, John Travolta, Tim Blake Nelson, and John C. Reilly all join the fray with small cameos), it is totally absent of a main character, a natural progression for Malick who was already rhyming his many characters' patterns with those of nature in his first two films Badlands and Days of Heaven. It's more apt to say that the entire group of soldiers is a character, and their many passions and grievances cumulatively form one consciousness, an idea that is actualized in the large array of characteristic Malick narrations, the voices of which are never instantly attributable to any specific character. As if acknowledging this very ambiguity, he includes one voice that bookends the film with no actual character equivalent in the film. It's a soft, whispery Southern drawl, full of awe and naivete, and it could be justified broadly as the "voice of the soldier".

The soldiers find their foil in the tribe of Melanesian natives who are seen early on in the film attempting to live peacefully beside the clamor of warfare around them. Pvt. Witt is spending his short leave of absence with them as the film begins, and it is here that Malick explores their sublime group dynamic, at once exposing both the features that make them a singular entity and those that align them more closely with the soldiers. Rather than indulging in any sort of simplistic "we-are-all-the-same" allegory though, Malick's just plainly interested in people and the social functions that cultivate within a group. There is no imposition of directorial control over these scenes; natural encounters simply play out (Witt talks calmly to a radiant mother about the weather, young children do dizzy bat races in the sand, the natives wade around and swim in the ocean) and the symmetries connecting diverse types of people are discovered organically. As in The New World, there are numerous images of people underwater and emerging at the surface as if from the liquids of creation, a repeated motif that underscores Malick's metaphysical concept that as individuals we are always being "born", even in the terrible context of war, where new situations and conflicts force people to redefine their sense of self.

As much as The Thin Red Line gathers an enormous power from the sustained episodes of non-violence that rest on the outer edges of the warfare, Malick proves an adept choreographer of large-scale battle. The primary fight that takes up a great majority of the film’s running time is a spectacularly intimate-feeling American siege up a tall hill. At its crest is a long line of Japanese bunkers, and for quite some time Malick does not reveal any Japanese soldiers, keeping the onslaught of gunfire and bombs abstracted and depersonalized to better reflect the faceless savagery of war. The soldiers ultimately see the enemy merely as the “enemy” rather than as people, and as such the prolonged sequence becomes a Sisyphean struggle, with various members of the infantry (different workings of one mind) dying in their ineffectual bravery. Malick is attentive to the mini-stories of all his characters, watching as Capt. Starros humbly declines the gruff Col. Tall’s orders to launch a full-blown attack up the hill, an adolescent soldier (Nick Stahl) writhes in pain before death, and one overanxious lieutenant (Jared Leto) observes in shock from within a trough of tall grass as his partners sprint up the hill only to be shot down. The entire sequence alternates between short bursts of loud, visceral battle – which feel longer than they actually are given Malick’s unique method of cutting right on the explosions - and quiet interludes of strategizing. War, the film suggests, is a dance between these two extremes, an absolute overload of sharp emotions and high-stakes decision-making.

Despite the acknowledgment of the soldiers’ initial blindness to the similar plight of the Japanese, the film’s not making (at least not aggressively or primarily) any predictable condemnation of militaristic ignorance and blind patriotism. Malick’s heightened compassion holds greater sway, and when the Americans inevitably do reach the top of the hill and attack the Japanese, he’s quick to share the same sympathy for the supposed enemy, lingering on long, documentary-like close-ups of the suffering soldiers. At first glance, this is a rather familiar, even manipulative, “anti-war” strategy: connect the audience to the one side only to suddenly reveal the true humanity on the opposite side, forcefully tugging the sympathies around (this effect was famously employed in Full Metal Jacket and has since been used in Letters to Iwo Jima, among others). But even if perhaps it would have been more in line with Malick’s moral democracy to intercut earlier on between the Americans and the Japanese, the film doesn’t hammer the idea home, letting the succinct emotional reactions of the Americans speak for themselves. What’s most important is that during the subsequent scenes, particularly the masterful attack on the Japanese fort in which the diegetic audio is muted and a series of frantic steadicam shots capture the crushing brutality and then the devastating sadness in one fell swoop, Malick’s distribution of compassion is completely equal.

After fighting ceases for a while, fighting begins again. Such is the nature of war. This time around, Pvt. Witt finds himself courageously walking into a trap of Japanese soldiers and dying. If there’s one character that could be said to be more of a main character than the others, it’s Witt, if only because he most overtly shares Malick’s spiritual, environmentally optimistic worldview. As a result, his scenes often achieve unmatched effectiveness, with the camera peering gently into those bright blue eyes, the kind of eyes that makes Colin Farrell such a piercing enigma in Malick’s next film. When Witt dies, it’s a similarly hypnotizing moment; the soldiers attack, but before we get a chance to have any grasp on the violence, there is an elegant stream of flashback images. Witt’s swimming, he’s smiling, the trees and the Earth are smiling. Somehow Malick makes even death an instance of profound rejuvenation, only to subsequently cut to an absolutely wrenching moment with Penn kneeling over his gravestone, murmuring beneath tears a simple question: “where’s the light now?”

These are the kinds of unanswerables so often muttered by The Thin Red Line’s cast of characters. In quiet internal voices, they plead questions about the origins of war, the two-sided coin that is nature, and the consuming hatred and stubbornness that overwhelm love, often times in the span of one long philosophical tirade. The desire is not to answer these questions, nor even to suggest that they are truly being asked in the vocal sense. They are merely the fundamental crises that rest within the consciousness, unable to really be justified by words. Sure, the film’s resolutely anti-war, but it’s less about discouraging American warfare or lamenting the existence of World War II in global history per se than it is about asking a deeper and more unsettling question about the instigation of violence and conflict in human nature in the first place. And sure, the film disagrees with a great majority of the behavior going on within it but the intention is not to single out individual shortcomings, only to place these shortcomings within the context of the larger rhythm of nature and to wonder why that’s the way it is.

Of course, skepticism about the darkness of nature is also complemented by an enormously reverent and ecstatic vision of nature courtesy of Malick and cinematographer John Toll. The images in The Thin Red Line are not just beautiful; they send a jolt to your system, a realization of the stunning pictorial majesty already inherent in the world. A shot of a leaf, torn-up and gleaming with sunlight and the thick smoke of battle, manages to evocatively telegraph everything Malick is trying to get across about the dichotomous and often collaborative forces of nature, and there’s not just one but countless similar shots throughout the film. This sense of pre-existing wonder, simply “captured” by the camera, underscores the idea that the physical world is a gift, a miracle even, which should not be taken advantage of or destroyed. In such an epic yet intimate and detailed work, it’s amazing how unmistakable this undercurrent is, so much so that it makes the experiences of the characters look almost petty in comparison. But Malick, obviously, is not concerned with dwarfing anything. He wants to see the light in everything, to ask the most vital questions about everything, and that’s what he does in The Thin Red Line.


Adam Zanzie said...

Interesting point there about the shot of the tattered leaf, Carson. That shot must have eluded me amidst all the other "nature shots" in this film, so I'll keep an eye out for it when I rewatch the film later this week (Tree of Life still isn't playing out here in St. Louis, so I'm coping with the long wait by revisiting Malick's stuff).

The Thin Red Line has always been the most difficult Malick film for me to critique because it's 3 hours of the most labyrinth-style Malick narrative there is. When I first saw it about 3 years ago, my opinion was typical of those expressed by critics in '98: it's "pretentious", it's "sluggish", etc. It's so refreshing to be revisiting it again, though. I don't know if the film is perfect--I still think the third act has a problem with wandering here and there, and at some point there's this incredibly long gap where not much seems to be happening before we finally get to Witt's death scene. This is why I'm looking forward to watching it again, this time in a shot-for-shot viewing. Maybe I'm overlooking something.

I think you're right about the film's stance on war. The James Jones book (which I never finished--I don't care much for Jones' prose) is obviously VERY anti-war, but Malick is a little more objective. He's critical of the ways in which war reduces us to dogs, but he elects not to argue against it because, hey, nature itself dictates that we go to war with each other. I'm not sure if Jones, a WWII veteran himself, ever talked about this in his book.

I'm listening to the Hans Zimmer score on YouTube right now with the volume turned up. Now I know why where's an intro on the Criterion which reads, "Director Terrence Malick recommends that The Thin Red Line be played LOUD."

Carson Lund said...

Ah, Adam! You know how much I hate the word pretentious! Haha. Of course, I never get that sense because The Thin Red Line is a masterful piece of cinema to me, paling only in comparison to his subsequent feature The New World.

I think it's off-base to see Malick in the vein of conventional storytelling arcs (i.e. "third act") because he's quite clearly not interested in adhering to these things. Malick's films are like free-flowing rivers rather than the linear, arc-like shape suggested by screenwriting dynamics. They are experiential, thus more effective if you can give yourself over to the often times illogical and abstract flow of images. For me, the scenes preceding Witt's death, and including the death scene of course, scene are some of the finest in the film. I love it when Malick is not constricted by linear narrative action, and that's what the soldiers' downtime offers him. There is no fighting or immediate end goal, so the poetry takes precedence.

I love that disclaimer about loudness on the Criterion DVD. I obliged and it was certainly worth it. It reminds of the creative control evident on the Eraserhead DVD, in which Lynch advises you to adjust the settings on the TV so that his deft handling of light and dark is adequately perceived.

Good luck with Tree of Life! It's coming to Boston in a week and I can't wait. I look forward to your thoughts when you do see it.

Loren Rosson III said...

Ah, are you only getting around to seeing this now, or just reviewing it? I remember reluctantly checking it out in the 90s as I was getting ready to swear off war films (for a whole host of reasons I won't get into) and being immensely pleased by the breath of fresh air, but then I didn't know the significance of Terrence Malick in those days. I'm really looking forward to Tree of Life.