The war is a jungle. In this case, literally.
It’s slap dab in the middle of WWII, or 1942 to be exact, and needless to say, a lot of lives are being lost. Bus most importantly, a lot of soldier’s lives are being lost, which is why a huge platoon is ordered to take the island of Guadalcanal. While this is no walk in the park, it’s made all the more difficult by the fact that the soldiers are literally forced to walk up the mountain, where they’ll most likely be meant by the opposing side, as well as a hail-fire of bullets. Among the many soldiers involved with this battle is Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), a U.S. Army absconder who has gone “native”, as they say, living peacefully with the locals of a small South Pacific island. While Witt is clearly enjoying his time in the sun, it’s all cut short when he’s discovered by his commanding officer, Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn), and forced back on the battlefield. However, there’s more at-play during this battle than just Witt, or Welsh. There’s Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte), who is having a real hard time making up his mind what the best cause or plan for warfare is, even in the heat of the moment; there’s Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas), a fellow soldier in a position of power, who also seems to be having an issue of what to do with it; and there’s Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin), a soldier who’s reeling from a recent heartbreak in his life.
By now, most people know that Terrence Malick is the kind of director you can expect to give you the most ambitious, sprawling, and at times, confusing pieces of epic cinema this side of Kubrick or Kurosawa, but it wasn’t always like that. With his first two feature films (Badlands, Days of Heaven), Malick not only showed his keen eye for an attention to beautiful detail, but also for small, character-driven stories that barely even screech past 100 minutes and instead, keep things tiny, tight and mostly focused. But after spending 20 years away from making movies and doing whatever the heck it is that he was up to, it was clear that something within Malick changed.
And honestly, we’re all the better for it, because, yes, the Thin Red Line is not only Malick’s best film, but perhaps one of the best war films of all time.
Having seen the film at least three times now, I can easily say that it’s up there with the likes of Saving Private Ryan, or Apocalypse Now, when it comes to curating the list of “the greatest war movies ever made”, however, it’s a very different one. In a way, Saving Private Ryan is a far more conventional, Hollywood-ized war movie (although it’s still great), whereas Apocalypse Now is a far more disturbing, terrifying and twisted one (and yes, it’s still great). But what separates the Thin Red Line from these other two flicks is that it’s far more meditative, but at the same time, in its own way, brutal as all hell.
By putting us right along with the numerous soldiers on men on the battlefield, Malick doesn’t let us forget that, for one second, these soldiers aren’t in the nearest thing to hell. They don’t have the slightest clue who is shooting at them, from which direction, where they’re supposed to go, what they’re supposed to do, or even what they’re next line of action is once they actually do get up to the top of the mountain – all that they do know what to do is to shoot, kill and try their absolute hardest to survive. This idea of frustrating, but horrifying confusion that these soldiers must have been going through is effective, especially since Malick keeps his eyes and attention set solely on the American soldiers, what they see, what they feel, and what they’re thinking about at that given time.
Oh, and not to mention, that these soldiers are literally engaged in action for a whole hour-and-a-half, which, when you take into consideration the three-hour run-time, evens out to being pretty action-packed.
However, the movie, nor is Malick all about that idea. No matter what happens in the movie, no matter who gets killed, or for what reasons, Malick never forgets to portray this war as an absolute slaughterhouse of not just lives, but psyches as well. Killing as many people as some of these soldiers do, can do quite a number on you; while that of course can start to happen when the fighting is over, it’s still something that can happen while on the battlefield as well. That’s why it’s not only shocking, but downright upsetting to see some soldiers here lose their minds, not have a single clue of where they’re at, or what they’re actually doing. There’s quite a few soldiers here and there that show up to prove this fact, but regardless, Malick drives home the idea that war is hell.
But even despite all of the violence and sheer ugliness of what’s being portrayed, Malick still finds ways to create some of the most beautiful, eye-catching images ever seen on the big screen. A part of me wishes that I was old enough at the time to see this when it was first in theaters; not just because it would have been great to join that short list of people who actually saw it in theaters when it was originally out, but because John Toll’s cinematography is so amazing, that it absolutely deserved to be seen on the biggest screen imaginable. Even though people are getting killed left and right, bullets are flying, and there’s no exact idea of who is where, Malick and Toll always find the time to capture the loveliness of the scenery this battle is taking place in.
Of course, with Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki’s relationship becoming something of fact over the past years, the visuals have only gotten better, but it’s hard to deny that the Thin Red Line is easily his best-looking film to date.
But what makes the Thin Red Line perhaps Malick’s best movie, is the fact that it introduced everybody to the fact that he surely did not care at all about star-power, when it came to making his movies. Sure, he clearly doesn’t mind having the likes of Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, George Clooney, or John C. Reilly want to be apart of his movies, but at the same time, he still doesn’t feel like he’s at all inclined to feature them heavily, just because of their name recognition, or whatever other silly ideas Hollywood has about commercial appeal. Though, of course there’s a lot of infamy surrounding Malick’s casting-process and just exactly who he does leave in his movies (Adrien Brody is barely here, despite being lead on to believe he was the main star, and other stars like Mickey Rourke, Bill Pullman, and Martin Sheen were cut-out of the final product).
Honestly, it takes a lot of guts to cut-out someone like George Clooney, and feature a relative unknown at the time, Jim Caviezel, but guts is exactly what Malick has always had in his career and it’s great to see someone in his position to not give a flyin’ hoot about who is a bigger star than somebody else. Of course, it also helps that those that Malick focuses his final-edit on the most, all give great performances, given that a lot of the times they’re thrown in the mix because Malick forgot about them, or just felt like their time was necessary.
Caviezel is a suitable protagonist, who not only shows the inspirational faith within someone like Witt, but the sheer horror when he realizes the evilness to war; Elias Koteas’ character has many scenes where you don’t know what he’s thinking about doing next, but it’s hard to look away; Ben Chaplin’s character is easy to feel sympathetic for, even if he can be a bit hard to differentiate from Caviezel’s Witt; Nick Nolte, well, let’s just say that he’s the stand-out among the cast, showing just how a person in his position of power, can use to his advantage, for better, as well as for worse. Even then, however, when he’s faced with the reality of the harsh realities of war, he still believes that it’s something necessary to life, and even something to be celebrated. And even though he’s quickly told this is not the truth about life, he still smiles his way onto the next war.
And that’s just the way war works. You get past one, and guess what? Sooner or later, you’re onto the next.
Consensus: Beautiful, endearing, thoughtful, well-acted, and above all else, sad, the Thin Red Line is less of a tribute soldiers, and more of a key look inside the sorts of hell they have to go through, and the sort of effect it has on them, while not being nearly as preachy as I make it sound.
9.5 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire