Over every grassy hilltop and around a jungle stream’s every bend, The Thin Red Line poses open-ended questions: Is there goodness and truth? Are we noble or savage? Do love and hate define us equally? Are those qualities bestowed upon us by a higher power, or are they our inheritance from our animal ancestors? Can we protect life at the same time that we destroy it? Is madness the only way to fundamentally reconcile the dualities inherent in human nature? Terrence Malick’s return to filmmaking after a twenty-year layoff is in certain respects a different beast than his prior Badlands and Days of Heaven, operating on an epic action-oriented, multi-character scale that dwarfs that of his two ‘70s masterpieces. Yet in its inquisitive rumination on the light and dark in men and women’s souls, the role of God in our thoughts and behavior, and the irreconcilable incongruities that govern not only warfare but our emotions, Malick’s film (based, extremely loosely, on James Jones’ famed novel) is of a piece with his preceding work. Utilizing contrapuntal voiceover narration from numerous characters, sunlight-dappled memory-filtered flashbacks, and gentle cutaways to the vine-strangled trees, swaying tall grass and submerged alligators of his island setting, Malick eschews traditional narrative structure and momentum, as well as characterizations of his many subjects, to craft a mood of poignantly detached poeticism.
An arresting panorama of sacrifice, brutality, compassion, altruism, hope and despondence, the auteur’s tale centers on the American military’s WWII siege of Guadalcanal in 1942. Despite myriad peripheral players, that saga often narrows its gaze onto a few specific figures: Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), attempting to reconcile war’s viciousness with his AWOL experiences amidst a tranquil South Pacific Melanesian community; emotionally numb First Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn), engaged in a running dialogue with Witt over people’s individual ability to affect the world; Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), attempting to survive by clinging to the memory of his wife (Miranda Otto); and Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) and his conflict with Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) over the degree to which disregard for life (that of one’s enemies, and own men) is necessary for warfare success. As in Days of Heaven, dialogue is frequently drowned out by environmental chaos, and performances and meaning are illuminated by a free-flowing, expressive editorial structure that gracefully comingles with John Toll’s rapturous cinematography. That aesthetic marriage emboldens Malick’s dreamlike tapestry of survival, death and renewal, one that’s ultimately concerned less with specific tactical maneuvers or combat suffering than with the grand contradictions of life, which not only become manifest via striking visual and aural juxtapositions, but also exist, simultaneously, in Malick’s terrifyingly beautiful imagery.