The Thin Red Line (1998)

The Thin Red LineStarring Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, James Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, John Cusack, George Clooney, Adrien Brody, Jared Leto, and John Reilly.
Written and directed by Terrence Malick.

Grade: D+

Review by Carlo Cavagna.

After a twenty-year absence, critically acclaimed director Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven) returns to the screen with The Thin Red Line, a sprawling 160-minute indictment of war as a crime against nature itself. The J.D. Salinger of directors, reclusive Terrence Malick is purported to be an erudite virtuoso of the screen, but if so, his genius is only sporadically on display in The Thin Red Line. Mind you, I'm not saying, "The Emperor has no clothes." I'm saying he's bare-ass naked, and I can see his hiney, all bright and shiny in the sun.

The basic problem with The Thin Red Line is that Malick has no idea what he's doing or where he's going. Apparently Malick shot hundreds of hours of footage, hoping that he would locate a movie within them somewhere. The result is a tangled mess, and the fact that it was drastically edited is plainly apparent. Characters come and go with no rhyme or reason. When they first appear, as in the case of Captain Gaff (John Cusack) and Corporal Fife (Adrien Brody), it seems as if we're expected to know already who they are. George Clooney appears on the screen for thirty seconds in a pointless cameo that can't possibly be the only reason he was cast. Sean Penn

Upon viewing the movie, an obvious solution presents itself: The first half of the film centers (very loosely) around a campaign by a company of U.S. soldiers to capture a ridge held by the Japanese on Guadalcanal Island during World War Two. Once this storyline is resolved, at about the two hour mark, the movie should end. Period. But no, it just keep going and going, to the point where you would half expect to see the Energizer Bunny ("Still going!") marching across the battlefield. Mind you, I'm not presuming to tell the Great Malick what kind of narrative structure he should have employed. I'm saying that it would be nice if there was one.

The Thin Red Line does have its moments, like bright goldfish occasionally appearing near the surface of a murky pond before swimming to the bottom again. The most interesting conflict in the movie is the disagreement between Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) and Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), who defies Tall and refuses to order his men up the ridge and to their deaths in a frontal attack. The assault on the ridge has a realistic, unscripted feel that compares favorably to Saving Private Ryan's carefully contrived plot. But Malick can't seem to let the story develop organically. He feels the need to continually interrupt it with voiceovers or with scenes of Private Witt (James Caviezel) interacting with the island's natives. During the first few minutes, I thought I'd walked into a modern rendering of Mutiny on the Bounty, and I'm still uncertain how those opening scenes, which recur throughout the movie, fit into the rest of the story. I couldn't agree more with a comment that I read on an Entertainment Weekly bulletin board: "Whenever it appears like some real drama...might get going, Malick invariably cuts away to the Discovery Channel." James Caviezel

The voiceovers ruminating on the nature of war, humanity, etc., are especially intrusive. It would appear that every person in the film is something of an introspective philosopher. Perhaps it is because Malick has failed to tell his story coherently or to develop his characters sufficiently that he feels the need to elaborate with voiceovers. Malick is unable to show you what he's trying to convey, so he must tell you. Although the voiceovers clarify Malick's philosophical intent, they succeed in confusing the story even more. They don't flow naturally from the action on the screen. Many times you can't even tell which character is talking. To make matters worse, Malick condescendingly dumbs down his thoughts and puts them in the drawling, uneducated words of his soldiers, or rather in the words he imagines they would use. The end result is that the voiceovers ramble aimlessly, just like the plot. Mind you, I'm not just saying that The Thin Red Line is a incoherent mess. I'm saying that it makes Apocalypse Now look like a focused and concise piece of work.

Review © January 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Image © 1998 Fox and its related entities. All rights reserved.

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