Terrence Malick’s first film as director in twenty years assembles various pieces of a great film into a mediocre one. The Thin Red Line is a meandering, obtuse rumination on the dehumanizing effects of war and will test the patience of even the most indulgent filmgoer. It runs close to three hours but probably only contains about two hours of story worth telling and not all of that feels like it comes from the same story.
Coming out as it did in the same year as Saving Private Ryan, this second adaptation of James Jones’ novel inevitably suffers in comparison. Its sprawling cast lacks the singular focus of Spielberg’s film, with many characters popping in and out of the narrative and none of them really coming to life. Also, the film’s languid pace is as deadly as a landmine. Where Ryan plunges the audience straight into the maelstrom of battle for a full half-hour, The Thin Red Line takes that same half-hour just getting the characters to the battlefield. This isn’t necessarily a problem if the content of that first half-hour commands our attention, but what we got from Malick is a beautifully photographed travelogue about Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), an AWOL soldier living among Melanesian natives, followed by a long philosophical conversation between Witt and Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) after the soldier is recaptured. Neither of these sequences moves the narrative along enough to justify its length.
The most frustrating aspect of this movie is that fact that the performances and many individual scenes are excellent and at least one storyline is worth following. The closest thing The Thin Red Line comes to a coherent central narrative is the conflict between Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) and Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte). The colonel is an aging officer, older even than some of his superiors, who feels that his career has passed him by and the coming battle is his last chance to lead men in a victorious battle.
The Thin Red Line picks up almost exactly where Guadalcanal Diary left off, with the Army taking over for the Marines in the battle for the Japanese-held archipelago. The enemy still holds Hill 210 and Col. Tall wants it taken. He orders Capt. Staros to execute a frontal assault on the heavily defended position. The initial attack results only in heavy casualties for the Americans with little ground actually gained. Staros refuses to press the attack, believing that a frontal assault is suicidal. The colonel, afflicted with a raging case of General Patton syndrome, refuses to consider any other option.
There are two other narrative threads that really don’t add any momentum to the story, but often serve to stop it dead in its tracks. Private Witt and Sergeant Welsh seem to pop in at random to discuss the nature of humanity in wartime and Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) tries to keep his sanity with idealized (and often eroticized) memories of his wife back home (Miranda Otto).
Make no mistake, this film is beautifully produced. The individual images are stunning more often than not as Malick contrasts the tranquility of nature with the human violence. Unfortunately, those beautiful images often form the backdrop for long, sophomoric voice-overs by the characters, which often sound like the losing entries from a junior high essay contest. Also, the film ends long after it feels like the story is over. There are at least two points in the latter half of this film where I was surprised (and dismayed) to find out that there was still more to see.
The news that Terrence Malick was coming out of exile to make his first film in twenty years lured practically every working actor out of the woodwork and the list of actors who aren’t in the film but spoke to the director about a role is just as impressive as the cast itself. Major stars like John Travolta, George Clooney, John Cusack and Woody Harrelson willingly signed on for what amount to very brief cameo roles. Again, there is nothing lacking in the quality of work seen on screen. It is the lack of coherence with which it is assembled that cripples this film.