The Thin Red Line
War may be hell, but could it be any more tedious than writer-director Terrence Malick’s remake of “The Thin Red Line”? Bloated and pretentious, “The Thin Red Line” is a wonderful two hour movie trapped inside a three hour marathon of confusing imagery and self-indulgent direction.
I was watching the DVD of “The Best of Times” the other night. That’s the small town football comedy with Robin Williams and Kurt Russell. One of the running gags of the film is how time has been kind to quarterback Russell’s winning record. It was only three touchdowns, but twenty years later the total had risen to seven.
Time has obviously been kind to director Malick. He’s revered in Hollywood for being a genius, even though he’s only made two films, and that was two decades ago. While “Days of Heaven” and “Badlands” were pretty to look at, they weren’t very substantial. Perhaps that’s why Malick slipped away into a self-imposed J.D. Salinger-like existence for two decades. It must be hard to be called a genius when you’re only marginally talented.
With “The Thing Red Line,” Malick couldn’t make up his mind if he wanted to make a film, a piece of art, or make a statement. Instead of narrowing his focus and picking one, he attempts all three, and the results are a disastrous juggling act.
The film is an endless parade of disjointed ideas and iconoclastic performances. “The Thin Red Line” is at its best during the grueling war scenes that feature stunning camera work and intense acting. The film sinks like a rock when the focus shifts to the inner workings of the characters.
It’s here where you realize that Malick is also a mediocre writer. Working from a novel by James Jones, Malick’s screenplay is filled with stock characters and dialogue. If it weren’t for the talented and seasoned cast, the film would be laughable.
It’s hard to keep a straight face when a captain is being dressed down for not following an order, and as his defense, tells his superior “Have you ever had a man die in your arms?”
With his flowery (yet ultimately embarrassing) voice-over narrative and endless insert shots of flowing water and soaring birds, Malick seems more impressed with himself than with the efforts of his cast.
The cast is another matter. Some stars, like Sean Penn and Nick Nolte, are actually making the same film as everyone else. Others, like John Travolta and George Clooney, drop by for their two-line star cameos and then disappear.
When Malick announced he was going to make “The Thin Red Line,” every male star in Hollywood wanted to be in the film. Some, like Travolta and Clooney, were so desperate to work with Malick that they took little or no pay. They just wanted to work with a genius. Unfortunately, their little star turns are more of a distraction than anything else.
There are a lot of distractions in “The Thin Red Line,” from an over-long opening sequence that finds AWOL soldier Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) cavorting with natives on some South Seas island. He seems more at home in tattered cut-offs than full fatigues, enjoying the crystal blue seas and skies of mother nature.
The island’s serenity gives Witt plenty of time to formulate his thoughts about war and man and eternity. When he’s discovered by a patrol and returned to his commanding officer First Sgt. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn), Witt learns that he will join the charge on a pivotal hill on Guadalcanal.
Assigned stretcher duty as his punishment, Witt finds himself in the middle of the action when his platoon is trapped on the side of a hill by the enemy. Under the leadership of Capt. James Staros (Elias Koteas), the platoon learns the horrors of war close-up when more than half of their unit is killed.
Leading the campaign at the bottom of the hill is Lt. Col. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte), who sees this battle as his last chance to advance through the ranks. To that degree, Tall is merciless when Staros complains that the situation is unwinnable.
When Staros refuses Tall’s orders to send his men back into action, the conflict sets into motion a chain of events that will turn boys into men, and men into heroes. The war scenes are Malick’s triumph, a collage of chaos and frenetic energy, captured with breathtaking sweeping camera work by John Toll and scissor-sharp editing by Leslie Jones, Saar Klein, and Billy Weber.
Tough and uncompromising, the battle scenes hold the film together. It’s here where the film’s stars are given the opportunity to shine. Penn is powerful as a man who has been a solider so long he’s forgotten what it’s like to be human. When he finally cracks under the pressure, you honestly feel his pain.
I’ve always been a fan of Elias Koteas, and his strong performance as Capt. Staros cements that relationship. Even when he’s forced to say some of Malick’s corniest lines, Koteas delivers then with such conviction you believe him.
The young cast that comprises the platoon are exceptional, especially young Caviezel, whose intense good looks betray the emotional conflict going on inside his head. Among the bigger names, John Cusack and Woody Harrelson are surprisingly effective. Cusack is uncommonly understated, while Harrelson gets the unpleasant duty of delivering the film’s big, emotional death scene. He succeeds without being maudlin.
Instead of being impressed with his intense performance, I was more concerned that Nick Nolte was going to have an embolism. As Nolte screams and shouts through his role, the veins in his head and neck pop out so far I thought I was watching a 3-D movie. Nolte is much better (and equally intense) in Paul Schrader’s “Affliction.”
While it’s lovely to look at and listen to (thanks to the ethereal score by Hans Zimmer), “The Thin Red Line” is a butt-numbing experience. Every time the film gains momentum, Malick stops it dead in its tracks with mindless narration and unnecessary imagery.
The guy had two decades off. If he wanted to make a National Geographic documentary, he should have done it on his own time. I came to see a movie about the human condition and how it survives under the most difficult of situations. If I wanted to look at lingering shots of clouds, I can go in the back yard.
“The Thin Red Line” should have been an important film. God knows it’s being marketed as the seconding coming for Malick, whose status in Hollywood should be reserved until he makes another handful of films. Personally, I don’t believe that “The Thin Red Line” was worth waiting two decades for. Even the reclusive Stanley Kubrick has a better average than that, and he’s really a genius.
BETTER DEAD THAN “RED”
THE THIN RED LINE
Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, Adrien Brody, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Dash Mihok, John C. Reilly, John Savage, John Travolta, and George Clooney in a film directed by Terrence Malick. Rated R. 170 Min.
LARSEN RATING: $2