Film: Terrence Malick: The Thin Red Line (1998)

There is some kind of artist in Terrence Malick, but it may be less about his craftsmanship per se.  Among his skills are an ability to lull powerful performances from confident actors, a sensitivity to light and motion, and a real cinematic configuration of time and space – a specific, unique one. He’s got a way of weaving Native Americans through the frame in The New World that catapults the film way beyond its relatively quotidian storyline; shots of leafy ripples in water transcend his vaguely inspired, elastic narrative.  As a storyteller, he’s prone to losing his way among imagery and tone-building, but he’s astronomically committed to what might as well be termed the musical qualities of film: timbre, pitch, rhythm, inflection.  According to the editors’ comments on the gorgeous Blu-ray edition of The Thin Red Line, he’s barely involved in the fine cutting of his pictures, allowing the mood to grow to his satisfaction and then refusing to watch further cuts.

On a disc replete with curious observations by Malick’s collaborators, that may be the most baffling.  The Thin Red Line – as Days of Heaven, The New World, and even Badlands – is a film of rigorous editorial precision, less conscious of concise storytelling but fastidious in effect; no cut feels arbitrary or inarticulate.  What he’s saying from moment to moment is another issue.  Malick is notoriously philosophical, but of a bent closer to hippies and college sophomores than Sartre or Thoreau, who seem most likely to have inspired his humanist and naturalist musings.  There’s something supremely flaky about the way Malick spells things out in voiceover, giving unilateral verbosity to guys who don’t deserve it, like Bell (Ben Chaplin), who’s barely able to construct a sentence in the film but wallows forever in metaphysical meditations.  Even when they work – Nick Nolte’s internal monologue gives greater dimension to Lt. Tall’s unforgiving ambition later on – every character speaks in the same voice, with the same attenuation to the vagaries of human behavior.  The reasons are obvious – they’re all facets of Malick’s own voice – but the trope grows gimmicky fast; we’re quickly inured to the philosophy as its wasteful wordiness rolls dully off the sharper, more expressive action onscreen.

It’s here that Malick’s strengths as a filmmaker come to bear.  Editor Leslie Jones claims the battle scenes and crane shots across the hills during the Guadalcanal attack scenes were difficult for Malick, who wanted nothing more than to work closely with the actors – but the truth is that those shots, careening at neck height through the tall grass in search of invisible Japanese bunkers, convey more about the existential crises of soldiers in battle than any of the solipsistic words Malick puts in their mouths.  Some of them start out quickly, zipping up behind and passing a soldier creeping low through the grass, and then slow as the shot widens, revealing a pristine hillside untouched by mortars, before catching up to the soldiers ahead (the ones most likely to take the brunt of the onslaught we’re all sure is on its way).  These shots contain perspective and purpose, executed with style, panache, and taste into utterly cinematic expressions of human feeling.  They flow with immaculate technical fluidity and formal dexterity.  They are the core of The Thin Red Line.

Elsewhere, Malick seems adrift inside his own head, shuffling aimlessly through sequences of sparse complexity or resonance.  These interludes tend to feel interminable, seeming to emerge visually and structurally freeform from what came before, and leading nowhere.  I make no demands that a film maintain vigilant guard over its narrative trajectory; not enough filmmakers are unafraid to meander for the sake of immersive atmosphere.  But if The Thin Red Line were a term paper – a thought-out critical exegesis, complete in form from its opening note – it’s rife with the sort of silly ponderings one should get out of the way in the process of thinking through it: “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?”  Oddly, this sort of stuff can take on a real emotional power when put firmly in the context of an individual character and his personality, as with Private Bell, coursing into battle (and thinking with words we can believe he’d use, to his wife, in his memory): “I belong to you. If I go first, I’ll wait for you there, on the other side of the dark waters. Be with me now.”  Had Malick disciplined himself to use voiceover in this capacity only, I think he’d have made a colossal masterpiece.

When the film came out in late 1998, it played second string to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in the Hollywood WWII arena, losing countless awards to it and suffering the effects of comparison to a tighter film more grippingly told.  And for all the backlash that Private Ryan seems to have endured since then, I think it’s one of Spielberg’s best films: simple in form, beholden to so little as a story.  Spielberg takes his time, letting his battle scenes develop with magnificent unpredictability: we know only that bad things are likely to happen, eventually.  Even better, he lets his characters develop within these scenes, pausing when the film could use a breath instead of when a character needs to be fleshed out.  Released months later, The Thin Red Line felt far looser, almost sloppy in form, hardly a war film at all.  It was hard to read, and harder to digest with critical determination.

Which may be okay.  Over the years I’ve returned to it from time to time, and gotten more used to its rhythms.  Familiarity doesn’t make it any better a film, really, but it’s softened me to the fact that there’s probably little Malick could have done to clarify his film.  He doesn’t bother with neat packages.  Days of Heaven, a film I’ve written off in the past as a beautiful, beautiful train wreck, now appears a bit more coherent, even if it suffers from overbearing performances from actors who were probably quite leery of so unsupportive a narrative framework.  And The New World, released in 2005, immediately resonated on a formal level.  The truth is that there are always idiosyncratic filmmakers who speak to nobody in particular when they work, demanding an audience of the willing like-minded: the Jarmusches, the Hanekes, the Kiarostamis, the Andersons.  These guys play without a backboard; look to the Scotts, the Howards, the Nolans if you want consensus.  You can reject those clearer voices – I think Wes Anderson has largely run his stylistic course (Fantastic Mr. Fox aside) – but there is so much of a personality at work in their pictures that there’s generally something there worth examining, if only once, for a moment.  How much less doubt could there be that Malick makes the films he thinks are worth making, with force, consistency, and competence?  He is only now making his fifth film in 40 years: The Tree of Life, due out this year.  In a marketplace dominated by loud, boorish shit (Private Ryan opens and closes with the the archest, preachiest crap Spielberg’s ever directed), I will welcome his quiet deliberation, even if I think he could do better.  It’s healthier for us as film viewers and filmmakers to sample purer tastes.

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