Smell of Popcorn

film reviews & musings by Max Lalanne

SPECIAL REVIEW: The Thin Red Line (1998)

Posted by Max Lalanne on May 27, 2012

Clocking in at a final runtime of 170 minutes – which would’ve been almost doubled if director Terrence Malick had his way – The Thin Red Line (1998) is one of the longest films I’ve yet seen, or is one that simply feels the longest and most intricately created, viscerally beautiful, and lyrically poetic.  It’s almost exhausting to watch, and not only because of the runtime if you get my drift. If you appreciate a war film that gives you the necessary war-is-hell battles between opposing forces and in the minds of the soldiers themselves, and then takes a calm break to extoll some philosophical rumblings, and then repeats over and over again – this is the best film you could possibly see. If you don’t appreciate that kind of cinematic voyage…well, you should probably watch it anyway because it’s a pretty good one.

The Thin Red Line, in my opinion, doesn’t really have a lead character propelling the story along by himself, all the weary and exhausted soldiers that populate the film are the lead character. When we first see Pvt. Witt (Jim Caveziel), he’s gone AWOL and is living in tranquility among the natives of some Pacific island, in peace with himself and nature. Soon though, he’s picked up by a Navy patrol ship, and (temporarily) becomes a stretcher-bearer to go along withthe platoon that’s sent to take the Japanese-held island of Guadalcanal. Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Elias Kotea, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, John C. Reilly all give perfectly restrained yet powerful performances, as well as Nicke Nolte as the explosive, promotion-seeking Lt. Col. Tall. A lot of times in this film, I admit, I lost track of which dirt-caked grubby soldier was which as they trek and fight through the hills and the jungles, which actually helped to think of the individual characters as  large, breathing organism like Malick probably intended.

My first introduction to Malick’s unique storytelling techniques came only last year, actually, when I watched  The Tree of Life – which deservedly won a Best Picture Oscar nomination and somewhat undeservedly lost it. Somewhat tellingly, I was reminded of that movie within the first five minutes of The Thin Red Line – same gorgeous, lush cinematography with low swinging Steadicam shots  from John Tell as Emmanuel Lubezki used fourteen years later, focusing on trees, branches, leaves, the sky, the grass; same somewhat non-linear plot that meanders in many ambitious directions and sometimes get lost. Indeed, a great part of the film – like, 45 minutes? – takes place as the soldiers try to take a deceivingly picturesque hill in Guadacanal fortified by deadly Japanese machine guns, and we are there with them, as they crawl and live and die and philosophize and do it all over again among the waist-high, blades of grass and nature itself.

Is The Thin Red Line one of the greatest war movies ever made? Yes and no, because Malick surpasses the basic philosophical ruminations that, say, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now utilized so well and forgoes completely the material questions such as, “Why are we fighting this war?” or “Whose side am I on?” Instead, from the start of the film you’ll be treated to disembodied voiceover asking, “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?” Such constant questioning may well turn action-seekers off, for this is not a Saving Private Ryan much as it is a Tree of Life; yet The Thin Red Line doesn’t shy away from portraying the bloody, senseless violence of war either. It just kind of elevates it to a higher lever –  succeeding most of the time, since the time involved is nearly three hours.

The Thin Red LineB+ 

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