by Rob Gonsalves
I feel sorry for anyone who sits down to watch "The Thin Red Line" expecting a star-studded war movie.Yes, it is set in World War II during the Battle of Guadalcanal, and yes, it does boast a formidable roster of actors. But neither of those attributes means much of anything in The Thin Red Line, the first film in twenty years by the legendary, hermitlike director Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven). Treating James Jones' novel (which was filmed before in 1964) as a blueprint, Malick has crafted nothing so much as a poetic tribute to his own artistic sensitivity. And believe me, that's every bit as tedious and pompous as it sounds.
"A golden gift for you Malick fans; I must admit I'm not one of you."
Malick has a spectacular reputation based on two movies from the '70s, neither of which is exactly a household word today. Yet a platoon of top-flight actors -- Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, John Cusack, John Travolta, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson, as well as many up-and-comers or newcomers -- chomped at the bit to work with Malick. Why? You got me; Malick is not, to put it mildly, an actor's director. In The Thin Red Line, the shimmering palm trees, rustling tall grass, and noble wildlife get more attention than the soldiers. We get the point: Man the warrior, man the destroyer, is an outsider in the glory of nature. Only the dreamers and poetic souls among the soldiers (whose thoughts, very unfortunately, we hear as narration) are as one with Nature. This isn't a war movie or even an anti-war movie; it's the invasion of the interloper Man into the Garden of Eden.
For a while, you may want to go along with the woozy perversity of this -- a war movie crossed with Koyaanisqatsi. But two hours and fifty minutes is a long time to indulge a director's flights of fancy; at times, the floating hippie-dippiness made me nostalgic for the comparatively clearheaded Saving Private Ryan, which, despite its grandiloquent passages, at least didn't wander off into the weeds photographing parrots. As if someone had tossed ice water on him, Malick does snap awake and stage a crisp battle halfway through; coiled with tension, a hellish action painting in fiery reds and dark greens, it made me understand, for a fleeting moment, what all those actors and critics see in Malick. But then it's back to the hushed picture-postcard images and insights like "Maybe we're all part of one big soul." Some may see art in this; I see tremendous waste and emptiness.
I enjoyed one other scene in the movie, which I'll mention to make a larger point about the movie's failure. Nick Nolte, as a rabid lieutenant-colonel, speaks with respect and affection to subordinate soldier John Cusack. "You're like a son to me," Nolte tells Cusack, then, oddly, adds "My son is a bait salesman." What does that mean? Is it anything so vulgar as a joke? (This movie, by the way, redefines "humorless.") I enjoyed the actors' moment -- Nolte's gruff expression of soldierly love; Cusack's quiet, ambivalent acceptance of it -- but we have no idea why Nolte's character feels this way, no sense of their history together, and in any event, there's no follow-through. The father-son bond is a popular sentiment in the film: demoted captain Elias Koteas says the same thing to his men, and George Clooney, in his gratuitous cameo at the end, tells the new crop of soldiers that he is their "father." I'm sure this means a lot to Malick. I'm sure it means zilch to anyone else.
The Thin Red Line begins with images that seem designed to confuse those pitiable viewers who came to see a war movie: Two American soldiers (who, we learn, are AWOL) dance and play and swim with innocent Melanesian natives. Oh, so man is destructive except for these untouched natives? Don't they also hunt animals and live off nature? The movie gets no better from there; even when it puts on its helmet and goes to war, it's got flowers in its hair. Malick is known for deleting most of his dialogue in the editing room; judging from the pointy-headed dialogue he kept, I have to wonder, How dumb was the dialogue he threw out?
The burnished visuals, the folksy-eloquent platitudes, the arrogantly abstract characters -- all of this might impress the same people who have invested so much, over the last 25 years, in the notion that Terrence Malick is a poet of imagery. (He damn sure isn't a poet of words.) But I can only conclude that Malick has achieved a film-buff version of mass hypnosis."The Thin Red Line" is nothing if not hypnotic, though the trance I entered was closer to nodding off. Maybe all those Malick acolytes are part of the same big soul. They certainly aren't part of the same big brain.
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originally posted: 12/26/06 20:11:42