The Thin Red Line

on December 25, 1998 by Wade Major
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   For better or for worse, Terrence Malick has become an icon of American cinema, mysteriously rising from talented '70s film brat to legendary '90s auteur without making so much as a single film in the process. For two decades, his unexplained absence from the director's chair has focused attention on his only two previous efforts--1973's "Badlands" and 1978's "Days of Heaven"--lyrical yet thematically complex works that remain as critically divisive today as when they were made.
   It is, therefore, understandable that his return project, "The Thin Red Line," would engender almost messianic expectations in hopes of finally deciphering the Malick mystique. But such hopes were doomed from the start. For Malick is less a storyteller than a metaphysical poet, an observer and articulator of humanity's innermost contradictions and abstractions. Like his previous works, "The Thin Red Line" asks more questions than it answers and violates more rules than it obeys, ultimately prodding audiences to engage in a far greater level of intellectual participation than any film since "2001: A Space Odyssey."
   Adapted by Malick over a period of eight years from the acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel by "From Here to Eternity" author James Jones, "The Thin Red Line" has long been considered one of the most seminal pieces of war fiction ever composed, a work of rare emotional power and brutal honesty. So much so, in fact, that the previous 1964 film version by director Andrew Marton has been largely forgotten, a noble but failed effort to adapt an unadaptable book. Nearly 35 years later, however, Terrence Malick has dared to meet the novel's challenge, radically altering James' narrative so as to preserve its most fundamental concerns.
   Focusing on the experiences of an army company during the World War II battle of Guadalcanal, Malick's narrative is not rooted in any sequence of events, but in the psychological and emotional travails of its characters. No fewer than a half-dozen men participate in the collage of sounds, images, thoughts and memories that Malick has superimposed upon the immediacy of war.
   It is an exercise that is at once metaphorical, allegorical, existential, impressionistic and desperately profound--a cinematic stream of consciousness certain to divide filmgoers and critics as violently as war itself.
   There can be no underestimating the radical extent to which Malick flouts convention. Less an entertainment than a philosophical challenge, the film features extensive voice-over narration, has no definable protagonist, no clear-cut narrative structure, and no easily identifiable moral position. At the same time, there is a mythical, Homeric quality to the vision that cannot be fully absorbed but with multiple viewings. As turbulent and poetic as a John Milton epic, as visually splendorous as a Claude Monet painting, "The Thin Red Line" is ultimately about the same conflicts that have inspired and troubled great artists for centuries. In Malick's view, the war between the Americans and the Japanese is secondary to civilized man's war with his primal self.
   The uniformly outstanding cast features performances that range from substantial (Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin, Jim Caviezel) to brief (Woody Harrelson, John Cusack), while others are resigned to cameos (John Travolta, George Clooney) or semi-cameos (Jared Leto, Adrien Brody, John C. Reilly). Many of the original cast's more prominent names, meanwhile, have been deleted entirely (Mickey Rourke, Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas), although most will probably reappear in an eventual "director's cut."
   The film also represents a personal best for many of Malick's already esteemed collaborators, including cinematographer John Toll, composer Hans Zimmer and production designer Jack Fisk, all of whom are virtually assured Oscar nominations for their work.
   How audiences will respond to "The Thin Red Line," however, is less certain, particularly in light of the already rampant comparisons to 1998's other World War II epic, "Saving Private Ryan." Ironically, the films share next to nothing in common aside from a shared release year. Unlike Spielberg, Malick is not after comfortable reconciliations and resolutions. He wants audiences to face the same moral dilemmas as his characters and to emerge just as confounded and frustrated. He wants to spur the debate, not placate it. Debating the film's objective merits, therefore, becomes a somewhat pointless proposition. As with any great work of art, there will be those with whom the message connects, and others with whom it does not.
   But even the film's detractors must acknowledge the courage of Malick's vision, arguably the most ambitious film to emerge from a major American studio in decades. By any measure, it must be viewed as a monumental accomplishment, a cinematic milestone that cannot be adequately encapsulated in any review. Even describing the film as the masterpiece that it is shortchanges the achievement.
   "The Thin Red Line" must be seen, felt and remembered to be fully appreciated. And for those willing to rise to the occasion, the reward is beyond compare. Starring Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte and John C. Reilly. Directed and written by Terrence Malick. Produced by Robert Michael Geisler, John Roberdeau and Grant Hill. A Fox release. War drama. Rated R for realistic war violence and language. Running time: 170 min
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