Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Review: The Thin Red Line (1998)

That twenty-year gap spent walking around and thinking about nature really did Terrence Malick some good. Sure, he does the same shit he’s always done, but this time, there’s focus.

This is an all-star cast, so brace yourself motherfucker. Nick Nolte spearheads a campaign into Guadalcanal with Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto, Nick Stahl, Thomas Jane, Tim Blake Nelson, John Savage, and allegedly Kick Gurry. John Travolta and George Clooney even stop by to say hello. And those are all just the actors I recognized, and I suck at that. Anyhow, explosions occur, people die, things are terrible for the characters for awhile, eventually a victory is declared by one not present, and we leave the island. The job to record the events is one for somebody else.This doesn’t fit easily into the category of ‘war film.’ The common tropes and beats, morality, bravery, disassociation, national pride and so on appear very briefly. The film is more interested in an analysis of the cosmic perspective, an objective camera view as a spirit floating over the tall grass from soldier to soldier, switching suddenly to a subjective view of their memories, their thoughts while a horrifying, mainly unseen enemy tries to kill him. Death as both paralyzing and the ultimate climax with nature. While you could look at it as every character suffering from PTSD at all times, it is not so much as a claim on realism or an anti-war push. We aren’t watching soldiers per se, not the proficient killing machines who have passed the academy and do their country proud by being good at their job. Forget about that shit, don’t even let it enter your mind. We don’t see the men themselves, but the men’s souls, and the immediate effects of violence while they struggle to comprehend their own behavior. We see men who are uncommonly honest, who slip easily into blissful memories of home, who intimately explore their surroundings, who speak different languages but appear to understand one another perfectly. This is a far cry from the cynicism (near nihilism, actually) that we have seen previously.

Only at the 2:10 mark does it begin to lose its power, quickly closing out arcs of minor characters and showing clips of scenes that were probably complete in the alleged six hour work print. It unfortunately sucks the life out of an otherwise extraordinary film.

There’s an inertial cage -- the novel The Thin Red Line, the original adaptation, and sure, the actual historical events at Guadalcanal that deserves a share of the success. And there’s the sensibility of a director that, as I now understand it, has worked very hard to create a giant stone monolith, complete with raw data but without form, and later, painstakingly carves a statue out of it.

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