Days of Hell

Whose line is this, anyway: John Cusack in Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line
area theaters, starts Friday

In the opening shot of The Thin Red Line, an alligator slithers into the water and slowly submerges itself. Among other things, it's a signal to the audience to leave solid ground behind. For the next three hours, director Terrence Malick conjures a state that's not unlike being underwater: dreamy, hallucinatory, meandering. If you don't surrender to his vision, however, The Thin Red Line is likely to be suffocating, boring, directionless.

What are we doin' here? That's one of many metaphysical questions stated in laconic, folksy voiceover by the characters in Thin Red Line. Some of those watching are obviously wondering the same thing: At the screening I attended, a man bellowed "Fuck you! I want my night back!" as soon as the end credits came up. Myself, I could have watched another three hours (the first cut was supposedly six hours). But that unseen malcontent provoked other questions. Why are people so angered, or even threatened, by the unexpected? Why do they brush off a war film based more on emotion than action? Why did I want to tell him, "Fuck you if you were disappointed"?

Granted, The Thin Red Line did warrant suspicion, given the thick cloud of hype surrounding it. Malick had seduced Hollywood with two great films (Badlands and Days of Heaven) in the '70s, then dropped out of sight. Like some jilted lover, Hollywood nurtured Malick's status as a genius for 20 years. So when he resurfaced to adapt James Jones's 1962 novel, Tinseltown's star attractions prostrated themselves, pretty much offering to clean port-a-potties for the honor of a cameo. But Malick managed to stand apart from the hype, producing a war movie that stands apart from the genre.

One oft-voiced complaint about The Thin Red Line is that it lacks a narrative. Yet there is a big picture--various platoons arrive on Guadalcanal, battle up a hill with much mayhem and bloodletting, capture it, clean up, and depart--as well as a series of small ones. A cadre of volunteers makes a daring assault on a Japanese bunker. The larger group takes out an encampment, and later, some of them become sitting ducks for a Japanese ambush. On a personal level, the humanitarian Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas) runs afoul of his asshole superior, Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte), who insists that Staros's men march into a death trap. Welsh (Sean Penn), a rock-hard sergeant with a wounded center, and Witt (James Caviezel), a gentle private who keeps going AWOL, edge toward a wary friendship; and Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) endures by dreaming of his wife back home.

What's nonnarrative about all that? The difference is that instead of being neatly unpacked and then wrapped up like a mess kit, it's all refracted into a series of vignettes. Indeed, while The Thin Red Line is not an overtly "difficult" movie, neither is it ingratiating: Characters drift in and out; some become known, others disappear, a few die not long after they're introduced. Throughout, nature comes to the fore as a virtual character itself--especially the hill the men must conquer, shimmering green, eventually blasted black and brown. (An uspoken question arises: Is war a part of nature or a disruption of it?) Malick holds off on the action for almost an hour, not so much telling a war story as composing a fugue about the inner life of war. And despite moments of heroism, heroes refuse to emerge (in fact, Purple Hearts and Silver Stars are portrayed as nothing more than crass politics).

There's not even a main character, but rather a sort of spiritual guide in Witt. The film opens with him and another private cavorting in paradise among a peace-loving tribe. Though his latest AWOL junket comes to an end soon enough, Witt's experience has changed him. Welsh tries to break him, saying, "In this world, a man himself is nothing, and there ain't nothing but this world," but Witt calmly replies, "I've been to another world."

Demoted to running stretchers, and later returning to the thick of battle, Witt exhibits an almost supernatural sense of mercy. He reaches out to the dying, both Japanese and American, and muses on mankind ("Maybe all men got one big soul, each like a coal, drawn from the fire"). Observing horrors with philosophical detachment, he presents us with the Big Questions. "This great evil--where'd it come from? Who's doin' this?"

The inner thoughts of Witt's comrades and superiors join the refrain, giving rise to another complaint about The Thin Red Line: that you can't tell who's talking when. In fact, that's Malick's point, to submerge the viewer in a film whose structure and pacing suggest the sporadic rhythms and emotional states of war: tension, boredom, adrenaline, catharsis, loneliness, camaraderie, insanity. By daring to build a poetic stratum into a combat movie, Malick veers dangerously close to pretension (and one unfortunate voiceover does fall into unintentional parody), but succeeds with something entirely entrancing.

In a precise exchange of smug dominance and jaded subservience, Brig. Gen. Quintard (John Travolta) and Lt. Col. Tall exchange formalities and pleasantries on deck as their ship approaches Guadalcanal. Tall's bitter, unspoken thoughts, together with the way the camera circles, follows, and frames the pair, makes for a heartbreakingly pathetic scene. But for all the virtuosity, Travolta's cameo is distracting--as is George Clooney's toward the end of the film and John Savage's bit as a cracked-up soldier in between. The Thin Red Line is also rather heavy on the hunks: Two hands can't count the number of loving close-ups of Witt's beatific countenance (which bears a striking resemblance to that of Linda Manz in Days of Heaven). Sure, multimillion-dollar stars are relegated to cameos with scale pay, and good-looking men are supplemented with plenty of lesser specimens, but it's not quite enough: Part of the beauty of Malick's other films was their lack of celebrity baggage.

But those are relatively minor quibbles, as is the questionable psychological constitution of some of the characters. Why didn't Witt drop out of the Army for good, or get discharged? How did Staros, a passionately religious lawyer, come to be leading other men into battle? Ultimately, these men support a larger goal beyond messages that are obvious enough (e.g., war is hell; modern man has spoiled Nature and those who live in harmony with it). By making such an emotional and lyrical war movie, one that's unabashedly gorgeous despite a healthy gore quotient, Malick is trying above all to make us feel again. Witt tells Welsh, who's seemingly shut down to everything around him, "I can still see a spark in you." That's Malick speaking.

Some are bound to roll their eyes at this. They might feel shortchanged by the ratio of battle scenes to those of scared or weeping soldiers, by the lack of triumph or even a clear purpose. What kind of wimpy-ass war movie is this? Transposing war into an emotional key, The Thin Red Line could be the first film to do double duty as a combat film and a women's picture. Then again, it's a nature film as much as anything, full of lush flora and fauna scenes to rival the Discovery Channel.

It's precisely this refusal to conform to expectations that has won The Thin Red Line its detractors, who are perhaps forgetting that such a quality is also a mark of great art. During the opening of the film, the natives sing an exquisitely uplifting song that also plays over the final credits. It's like the closing hymn after a strangely hypnotic service on celluloid. Think what you will, but that's meant as a compliment.

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