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The Thin Red Line

March 3, 2016

The Thin Red Line (1998)
Director: Terrence Malick
Actors: Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte

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Synopsis: The lives and innermost musings of a series of soldiers during the Guadalcanal conflict of WW2.

Review: Contender for one of the most noble films ever made, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line will always have a place in my heart as perhaps the work that first opened my undergrad eyes to the true transcendent and emotional possibilities of cinema.

Looking back, Malick’s experiential, sensory lure immerses you from the off with a quite staggering sound-image juxtaposition of epic harmonic chords rising over the sight of that most ancient, forboding and ‘resilient’ of creatures – the crocodile – positioning itself stealthily in some Guadalcanal swampland. The tenor then shifts to uplifting choral music and a more benign spiritual image of a tree twisting its way up toward a heavenly light. Quite what these phenomena mean may not be entirely conclusive – although perhaps it’s the notion that nature will always endure and has its own avenging source (and is the carnage wrought by mankind an inevitable, cyclical facet of ‘nature’ anyway?)

Malick then moves into the slightly more concrete by introducing the film’s first, and key, player – Witt – the AWOL army private. Acting as the proxy moral pivot of the film and the ‘control’ through which the chaos of the war is refracted, Witt is both a remarkably poignant concept and characterisation by Malick, and he is majestically incarnated by Jim Caviezel – an actor who must have one of the most soulful pair of eyes in cinematic history, and whose de facto messiah character here and overall photogenetic gracefulness made him a shoe-in when Mel Gibson came to cast his literal Jesus for The Passion of the Christ a few years later.

This feeling of religiosity is rife throughout the film; from its imagery to its themes and characterisations. It communicates itself most beautifully in perhaps the film’s most important detour and ‘parable’: Witt movingly recounting the death of his mother and the lesson of divinity and grace he absorbed from that experience. It sears through the screen with its poignancy and truthfulness – not just in Malick’s beautiful words and Caviezel’s soulful rendition, but also in the free-associative imagery used to depict the immense emotional experience of death: the old, frail hand caressing the young, perfect one, the primal image of child listening to a beating parent’s heart, and the idea of death as liberation – the bedroom is roofless and projects out over a limitless sky. The genius of the scene is that it transcends sheer prettification and has real dramaturgical, as well as sensory, purpose. Witt is essentially establishing a spiritual code for when he is to be confronted with his own mortality in the film’s closing moments.

Equally spellbinding about Witt are his mesmeric tête à têtes with his initially cynical army sergeant Welsh, played by Sean Penn. They almost function as the theoretical battleground of the film, playing out as quarterly commentaries on the action, and it is one of the film’s most moving strands to witness Welsh’s guard of callous, self-preservation slowly begin to erode amid the example of Witt’s sheer capacity for hope and humanity in the middle of such an awful conflict.

The only problem with the film is its liberal and sometime clunky and demonstrative use of voiceover. At its best – as in Witt’s ‘mother dying’ reminiscence or Bell’s romantic reveries – it has a soaring, lyrical quality complimented by the visuals, but at its worst, the voiceover projects as simply an inelegant attempt to play too much into the rhetoric of the material. A clear example is in the opening naval scene where the main commanders and their stakes are introduced. Almost immediately, we get Nick Nolte’s rather gruff Lt. Col. Tall portentously pondering on “what I would have given for love’s sake” or “the closer you are to Caesar, the greater the fear” etc. Now for Witt, as the example of transcendence, the voiceover is relevant, but for a philistine, repressed, cipher of a character like Tall, the use of an emotional inner-voice is prosaic and redundant. Voiceover in Malick’s films works best, as in Badlands or Days of Heaven, when it has a certain ironic distance from the action and only takes the perspective of a single character. Malick’s attempts to convey the myriad relativism of war would not have been hindered in the slightest by limiting the quantity of voiceover (and dare I say its sometime mawkishness.)

Pretty much everything else about the film is on much surer footing though. The power struggle between Nolte’s Tall and Elias Koteas’ Staros is a compelling parable of the conscience. And in fact, it’s this central idea of morality running through The Thin Red Line that makes is so much more compelling and powerful than most of the other (even seemingly liberal) war films in its genre. Never at any point is glory or catharsis allowed to masquerade the soldiers’ sufferings. War is depoliticised and shown to be uniformly evil, perverse and unnatural, a complete antithetical counterpoint to mankind’s craving for existential sanctity. (March 2016)

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