Original Publication Date: 12/23/1998
THE THIN RED LINE. Sean Penn, Nick Nolte. Directed by Terrence Malick. Opening today at the Ziegfeld and Union Square 14 Theaters. Running time: 165 mins. Rated R: Combat violence, strong language.
The Thin Red Line' is destined to be the other World War II movie of 1998, coming as it does several months after the critical and commercial triumph of Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan."
It is too dark and cluttered and mysterious ever to achieve the popular acceptance of Spielberg's movie, but as an artistic creation, it is a far more original, far more challenging piece of work.
Conceived 10 years ago, long before "Private Ryan" was a viable project, "The Thin Red Line" is the first public offering of its director, Terrence Malick, since his now classic "Days of Heaven" in 1978.
Twenty years is a long time between movies, and Malick seems as alienated from the contemporary audience as Spielberg seems directly wired into it. Where Spielberg's film is a straight-line narration with a clearly defined hero, rock-solid values and a sentimental underpinning, Malick still lives in the experimental atmosphere of the 1970s, a time when American movies were dedicated to subverting those conventional certainties.
Taking its outline from a novel by James Jones, "The Thin Red Line" traces the experience of an Army rifle company, called C-for-Charlie, in the chaotic, costly battle for control of the strategic Pacific island of Guadalcanal.
Yet the film opens with a pastoral reverie: A soldier, Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel), who we later find to be a deserter from Charlie Co., plays in the surf with the children of an island village. It's an image of peace and wholeness that will serve as a benchmark for the film's later visions of violence and fragmentation; it also establishes the water imagery that will dominate the film's first third, followed by images of wind and fire. Abruptly, the focus shifts to a battleship, where the members of Charlie Co. are preparing to make their landing on Guadalcanal. They come at us in a confused rush of characterization; for a while, and deliberately so, it is hard to tell them apart.
Though Malick takes advantage of familiar faces - Sean Penn, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, John Savage, Nick Nolte - to help the audience track the characters, he also has pushed a number of less familiar performers - Caviezel, Adrien Brody, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, John C. Reilly - into the foreground. Mixing the familiar and the lesser known, Malick is trying to create the sense of a collective protagonist, an idea of Charlie Co. as an organic unit with a single, shared consciousness.
That collective consciousness is put to the test in the film's centerpiece sequence, an extended battle for control of an inland hill guarded by a Japanese machine-gun nest. In what feels like real time, the members of the company repeatedly rush the windswept hill and are beaten back, as John Toll's camera follows the action in low tracking shots. The enemy is distant, abstract, barely glimpsed; to these American soldiers, the Japanese will become human only in defeat and death.
An infernal fire dominates the film's final act, a drunken celebration of victory that finds villages in flames, prisoners tortured and shot, the men of the company numbed by the horror and loss. Eventually a sense of purpose returns - beautifully conveyed by Malick's editing, which becomes less elliptical and more focused on extended scenes - and the company returns to the jungle for a final, tragic cleanup operation.
"The Thin Red Line" is not a film that will reveal all of its secrets in one viewing; like "Days of Heaven," it's a dense and allusive work, with references as disparate as the German silent cinema and Buddhist philosophy.
It doesn't relate a story as much as it moves from image to image, mood to mood and rhythm to rhythm.
Here is something great and startling - not necessarily the kind of comforting, consensus-creating film that wins Oscars, but unquestionably a movie that will live in the history of the medium.