Jim Caviezel stars in THE THIN RED LINE, directed by Terrence Malick for 20th Century Fox.

The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Malick)

The Thin Red Line is about fear, beauty, solitude, loneliness. Director Malick’s approach is, frankly, staggering. Thin Red Line is an odd film to talk about because in most ways, it’s my favorite film. One of the great things about a good movie–not even an excellent or an amazing movie, but a good movie (and quite a few bad ones)–is being able to return to it as one matures, learns, comprehends and to appreciate it on additional levels. Returning to Thin Red Line for the first time in many years, I discovered it works in all those ways. Knowing more about film informs it, knowing more about history informs it, knowing more about narrative informs it, knowing more about owls informs it. Film is not static. Film ages with everything else. It grows, it contracts, it makes people laugh at the wrong moment. Malick acknowledges the film’s majesty. He does not give Nick Nolte a big part as a blowhard because he isn’t acknowledging the perfection in that casting choice. He does it because Nolte can do this part and he can make it phenomenal.

So much of the film is about the acting but not the actors. Malick doesn’t let the viewer identify with the characters by actor, rather by emotional impact. The film has frequent–often constant–narration from a variety of characters. I don’t even think the main narrator is ever identified, not for sure, because the viewer is the main narrator. He or she goes through the film as presented, through the fear, through the beauty, the solitude, the loneliness, and comes to this conclusion. To the film’s conclusion.

Or the narrator is just John Dee Smith. Though, if Smith is the narrator, Malick manages to turn the viewer into a Southern boy with an abusive stepfather and bad teeth, because there’s no difference. Malick doesn’t use characters in that manner. Even with Ben Chaplin’s officer turned private, whose entire internal life is about his wife back home, his details aren’t as important as how he reacts with them in frame. Because Thin Red Line isn’t some grand, sweeping melodrama, it’s an intensely focused, intensely personal film, emphasis on the film. Malick’s far more in the Eisenstein school of collision–basically how the presentation of shots and their editing, not necessarily their content, can be used to create emotion in the viewer–than something like David Lean or anyone else. It’s a lyrical assault.

Only Malick is using the content. He’s using the visual content of these beautiful, tropical Eden. He’s using the narrative content of a war movie. He’s using the audial content of the narrators. And he collides them, he separates them, he compares them. Thin Red Line is like going to an island of World War II reenactors and taking acid. And you’re invisible. And everyone looks like a famous person. Malick is speaking directly to the viewer and creating this setting for the viewer’s personal edification.

Malick strips the community out of The Thin Red Line. The way he structures the first act, the way he structures the first half–he’s removing the viewer’s sense of community, sense of stability. It’s far more personal. The poetic narration, separated so much from the characters or the setting, engages with the viewer. Malick is using the narrative content to echo the emotions created by the film’s visuals. Pardon my passive voice.

This sort of tempo isn’t unique to the film or to Malick. It’s the rhythm of good filmmaking. But Malick is playing different music and getting the same emotional beats. He’s got two movies playing side by side, one top of one another, completely transparent. And they’re jointly the film.

Like I said.

Staggering.

Malick gets some phenomenal performances out of his cast. Nolte, Chaplin, top-billed Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok, John Cusack’s great in his small role. Woody Harrelson too. Though differently.

And then there’s Jim Caviezel. He doesn’t exactly play the film’s lead, but he does play the character who the audience spends the film trying to understand. It’s not clear if Malick thinks Caviezel’s the most interesting guy around; the film’s pretty even between Caviezel, Chaplin and then Nolte and Koteas in the stuff of epical importance. Oh, and then Mihok. He’s got a fairly large part.

But Malick posits he is showing the viewer the world through Caviezel’s character’s perspective. Not his eyes. His perspective (which allows for subplots). And Malick uses that particular perspective with the visual aspects of the film. The narrative level is far looser; Malick’s ability to naturally follow Caviezel around, especially as he inserts himself into the story, is skillful filmmaking. Malick, Caviezel, the other actors, the editors, they do a great job.

The editors are real important for Thin Red Line. Leslie Jones, Saar Klein, Billy Weber. The cuts in the film are sublime. The editors understand Malick’s narrative needs–for example, introducing the characters to the viewer–but also the need to actively force the viewer to make his or her own connections. Thin Red Line has a steep learning curve and unforgiving blind corners.

(Sorry, I needed a good mixed metaphor).

The first time I saw The Thin Red Line, I saw it again immediately following. Opening night. Returning to it over fifteen years later, I’m terrified at the prospective of an immediate rewatch. It’s too much. I like it too much. The Thin Red Line is my Nietzschean abyss. I just can’t too much.

This time watching it–I’d forgotten a lot–I really noticed the change in the weather. The clouds moving across the soldiers. That detail pulled me in. And I can see the film doing it, beckoning me, but it doesn’t matter. Creating something so focused, so controlled, yet so open, so welcoming… it’s just another amazing part of the film and Malick’s filmmaking here.

I also noticed, this time, Caviezel’s character has a Japanese alter ego.

Wonder what I’ll notice next time.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Terrence Malick; screenplay by Malick, based on the novel by James Jones; director of photography, John Toll; edited by Billy Weber, Saar Klein and Leslie Jones; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Robert Michael Geisler, John Roberdeau and Grant Hill; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Sean Penn (First Sgt. Edward Welsh), John Travolta (Barr), James Caviezel (Private Witt), Adrien Brody (Corporal Fife), Elias Koteas (Capt. James Staros), Nick Nolte (Lieut. Col. Gordon Tall), Ben Chaplin (Private Bell), Dash Mihok (Private First Class Doll), Arie Verveen (Private Dale), David Harrod (Corporal Queen), John C. Reilly (Mess Sergeant Storm), John Cusack (Capt. John Gaff), Larry Romano (Private Mazzi), Tim Blake Nelson (Private Tills), Woody Harrelson (Staff Sergeant Keck), George Clooney (Capt. Charles Bosche) and John Savage (McCron).


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