The Thin Red Line

The big dead one: What was supposed to be Terrence Malick's long-awaited comeback is instead a cliched, self-indulgent throwback to the '70s. Reviewed by Charles Taylor

Published January 8, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

The worst thing about watching "The Thin Red Line" is imagining its afterlife. Like certain other bad movies -- "Blade Runner," "The Shining" and, inevitably, "Heaven's Gate" -- Terrence Malick's version of James Jones' novel is going to be cited for years to come as an example of how Hollywood (and by extension the mainstream audience) is unable to deal with the truly daring and original films that appear in its midst. But there's a very good reason Malick's movie is going to bomb. Like those other films, "The Thin Red Line," either by incompetence or willful perversity, dispenses with plot, characterization, dramatic structure and emotional payoffs in favor of the sort of painstakingly composed pictorial diddling that invariably gets critics frothing about the director's "indelible" images. There's no denying that Malick and his cinematographer, John Toll, do achieve some striking images in "The Thin Red Line." But because they're not tied to anything, they slide from your mind almost before you've left the theater. Remember in "Manhattan," when Diane Keaton is describing all of her friends as geniuses and Woody Allen says, "You should meet some stupid people for a change"? Well, it's the same thing with beautiful images. You can only look at so much dappled sunlight and smoke filtered through insect-eaten leaves before it all starts to run together. (After the screening I attended, someone said, "Terrence Malick never met a leaf he didn't like.")

Perhaps the oddest thing about the movies in this select group is that (except for "Heaven's Gate," which had an original screenplay) they all come from accessible, involving sources (novels by Philip K. Dick, Stephen King and James Jones), which the filmmakers choose to disregard. Jones' novel, the story of an Army company's landing and battle experience on Guadalcanal, is a chaotic, intensely physical piece of writing with perhaps 50 characters among its various narrative threads. The main character is, of course, the war itself, and Jones' aim is to paint a panorama in which each character reacts -- with cowardice or bravery or fear or complexly intertwined combinations of infinitely less readable motives -- to the battle hanging over him. It's far from a perfect novel. Even Paul Fussell, who called it perhaps the best of all WWII novels, identified a tendency (shared, he thought, by all fictions that attempt to capture the nature of battle) of characters "to assume the clichi forms demanded by Hollywood, even the new Hollywood." In some ways, Jones' men are simply more profane, less noble versions of the "melting pot" platoons of Hollywood's wartime propaganda films. But Jones neither ignores nor makes a big deal of incidents like two soldiers who fall into a temporary sexual relationship, or one who kills his first Japanese soldier when he goes to a private spot to defecate.

The constancy of the novel is its scrupulous determination, within a fictional form, to be as honest as it can. It's a brilliant novel, and a booby-trapped one, requiring a director who can not only master a story told on a killingly difficult physical scale, but also bring emotional and narrative urgency to a story without a central character. Robert Altman probably could have done it, or Philip Kaufman. But Malick cannot. He conceives of his subjects in terms of mood and visual effect. He's like someone who goes to every conceivable length to set the perfect atmosphere for dinner and then forgets to put anything in the oven. He makes the sort of movies that are always referred to as "meditations." In Malick's case that means that the movie is still locked up in his head. Or perhaps not. Maybe that dappled light and the Steadicam shots moving at foot level through the tall grass and the ominous swelling undertone of Hans Zimmer's score and the oblique/obvious nuggets of pseudo-Zen wisdom dropping from the mouths of the characters are his version of the novel.

Malick has seized on the interior monologues of Jones' characters and smothered the movie in the voice-over narration he used in "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven." And it's easy to see why. If everything is explained to us, Malick doesn't have to dramatize it, and thus nothing gets in the way of his presentation. "Only one thing a man can do," begins one of the movie's inscrutable ponderances. "Find something that's his. Make an island for himself." In this case, Malick has made an island for himself out of something that's James Jones'. He doesn't serve the material, it serves him. Like Stanley Kubrick (and perhaps Michael Cimino), Malick wants us to react not to the story or the characters, but to his artistry. We're meant to ooh and ahh at each visual coup regardless of how it mutes the dramatic impact of the moment. (I lost track of how many times, during the long battle sequence that occupies the center of the movie, Malick drowns out the dialogue with Zimmer's score.) Malick reduces the sexual yearning of Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin, doing his damnedest in a role that requires him to look mutely stricken) for his wife to a series of silent tilted angle flashbacks of the pair walking on the beach or swinging on playground swings or doing some decorous petting. The only thing missing is a throaty voice whispering, "Obsession." Because finally, what Malick does is just a higher form of advertising art. He's not exploring emotion; he's conceptualizing it, and not very clearly. There's no there there in Malick's filmmaking, no horror to the battle scenes, no sense that anything we're watching has a present tense, or any dramatic weight, or anything requiring us to care.

In that context, there isn't much the actors can do. It seems incredible that in a movie that boasts Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, George Clooney and John Travolta, among others, next to none of those performances are worth talking about. It's not the actors' fault. Most of them have parts consisting of only a few scenes (Clooney gets about 60 seconds of screen time), and many of those scenes are drowned out by another actor's voice-over. The relative puniness of many of the roles may be a result of Malick's cutting the film from his reported original six hours to its present length of 170 minutes. But even if roles were fleshed out, I'm not sure the actors would make any more of an impression. The exceptions are Elias Koteas as the captain (inexplicably changed by Malick from Jewish to Greek) who refuses a superior's orders to send his men on a suicidal attack plan. Koteas, who's always struck me as a scenery chewer, plays a decent officer concerned with the welfare of his soldiers, and his uncluttered readability is welcome in the surrounding metaphysical soup. And as the officer who orders Koteas' men on the attack, Nick Nolte delivers the movie's only full-scale performance. As usual, Nolte creates his character physically. He's massive here, and at the same time no more than sinew and muscle. Nolte's Lt. Col. Tall is a man who's been passed over for promotion and is desperate to use Guadalcanal to prove his worthiness to the superiors who are observing. When Koteas' sergeant refuses his orders, Nolte nails the outraged disbelief of a man who's not used to being refused. His rage might be the kind of thing familiar from agit-prop parodies of the military mind-set, if Nolte didn't hew so closely to Jones' view of the character. He plays this military monster as a grunt under his command might see him: a half-mad son-of-a-bitch determined to get the men under his command killed.

It's perfectly in keeping with Malick's scheme that, most of the time, the voice-overs don't sound anything like the characters from whose heads they are meant to be issuing. What do they have to say? "War doesn't ennoble men. It turns 'em into dogs"; or "Maybe all men got one big soul that everybody's a part of"; or "Love, where does it come from? Who lit this flame in us?"; or "Who are you to live in all these many forms?" This last one is directed to Nature (no fooling), but it might as well be the director talking to himself, because all the voices here really add up to only one voice: Malick's. His idea of masculine profundities is like what Hemingway might have come up with if he wrote fortune cookies. And piled on top of all this manly head-scratching is a vision of war as an evil that civilization brings to despoil the uncorrupted beauty of nature. Malick opens the movie with a prologue involving two soldiers who've gone AWOL on an island inhabited by peace-loving natives. The depiction of these people is the most simple-minded and condescending imaginable. They possess a harmony with nature that the white man has lost, yadda yadda yadda. Of course, we see them again toward the end of the film, after they've become corrupted by their encounter with man.

That clichi is a throwback to the period in American movies during and just after Vietnam. So is the whole movie. The recurrent theme of most of the reviews of "The Thin Red Line" that have appeared is a willingness to forgive the movie's flaws in order to lavish praise on Malick, who hasn't made a film since 1978's "Days of Heaven." As misguided as I think those reviews are, I understand where they're coming from. Read between the lines and you can see movie critics wondering if their job is still worth doing in a time when studio execs, not filmmakers, rule. It's as if by creating a swelling chorus of praise for Terrence Malick, they believe they can bring back the glory days of American movies of the '70s when, at good movies and bad, the constant seemed to be that audiences were treated like adults, and it wasn't assumed they would reject the unfamiliar or the unresolved. And there seems to be an unspoken fear that if "The Thin Red Line" fails without any support, the studios will use it as an excuse to quash other chancy projects and feed us more of the same pap.

In response, I wonder how many critics saw Nolte's interview with Charlie Rose on Dec. 21, two days before the movie opened. It was probably the most extraordinary interview I've ever seen from an actor ostensibly promoting a new movie. Nolte, who was marvelously witty and straightforward, told amusing stories about Malick letting his attention wander during scenes and suddenly ordering Toll to shoot the tree leaves overhead, or directing Nolte by giving him some lines of Homer to learn in Latin. At the end of the stories, Nolte announced, "I don't believe the movie's finished" (this was about 36 hours before it opened) and then went on to reveal that Zimmer had been adding music the week before -- and that members of the production team had, a few weeks before that, sat Malick down and told him he couldn't make any more changes. ("I don't know what those critics saw," Nolte said, referring to the unfinished work print screened for critics in New York and Los Angeles in the first weeks of December; the version reviewed here is the finished one now playing in theaters.)

Now, I know that most studio execs can't tell self-indulgence from brilliance. But it seems to me that a filmmaker whose methods are as preening and undisciplined as Malick's are frequently reported to be, and whose finished product has such disregard for audiences, does more harm than good to the chances of other filmmakers hoping to do something more than a retread of last season's blockbuster hit that was lousy to begin with. And though Malick is now being made to stand for the originality and daring of '70s American movies, even in that era, "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven" showed the same mixture of distanced estheticism and woozy philosophical imponderables. Next to the work of Altman, Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma and Mazursky from that period, they're pallid jokes. The '70s aren't coming back, certainly not by turning Malick into a demigod and preparing the altar and lighting the incense for his second coming. There are plenty of directors working to stretch themselves or the medium who continue to need critical support in the face of studio incomprehension and audience indifference. In 1998 that group included filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh ("Out of Sight"), George Miller ("Babe: Pig in the City"), Sam Raimi ("A Simple Plan") and John Boorman ("The General"). The return-to-paradise fantasy that opens "The Thin Red Line" has turned out to be a potent one for some of the critics praising it. But a dream of a recovered golden age is no reason to follow this tin-pot Kurtz into exile. There are too many signs of life on the mainland.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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