Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Thin Red Line

One of my favorite films from last year was Terence Malick's The New World. So, having enjoyed that film so much, I decided to revisit the first film of his that I saw, The Thin Red Line. I'm not usually a big fan of war movies, more than any other genre, it's very limiting, there's only so many different ways you can set up the platoon of archetypal characters, all longing to get home. Earlier this week, I watched the Korean film Taegukgi which was well shot, but I'd seen the characters and situations in many other movies. Jarhead basically admitted that there was nothing left to do with the war movie and did a meta take on the genre, where no one actually fights, the only action we see is when they're watching Apocalypse Now. This film seemed to signal the total exhaustion of the genre. Unless you do something set in the future, there's very few interesting directions left for the war movie to explore.

With The Thin Red Line, Malick approaches war in his traditional style, a dreamlike, poetic haze, with lots of voiceover and editing that connects images and feelings rather than plot points. The film is about half masterpiece and half good, but flawed. The parts that do work are primarily the ones away from combat, where we focus on what the soldiers are thinking and feeling.

The opening is incredible, with gorgeous visuals showing Whit's sojourn in the native peoples' village. The joy he feels here hangs over the rest of the film, which generally does not go well for any of the characters. You can see a lot of the roots of The New World here, Whit is basically John Smith, a soldier trying to assimilate into a peaceful village, finding a utopia only to be pulled away from it. The way nature is shot, particularly the underwater swimming scenes, is replicated almost exactly in the latter film.

The basic theme of the film is that war destroys all around it. So, Nick Nolte may express ambivalence about his role as commander, but during the fight, he's still yelling at his troops, ordering them into dangerous situations. The film doesn't give us any sense of satisfaction from the victories, there's no clear line between the battles, so everything just blurs together, and even though progress is made, we know that this island isn't of particular strategic importance. It's just people killing other people. And, like a virus, the corruption spreads to the native people, who are fighting each other at the end of the film, and won't allow Whit back into the village.

The major issue with the film is that there's so many characters, and not that many of them are really developed. There's a few people, Whit, Staros, Jack, whose storylines we can follow, but they'll disappear for a while and we'll just have other people showing up and doing stuff. In some senses this is the film's strength, rather than having cliched archetypal characters we get people who are just there, however, it makes it hard to get emotionally wrapped up in the story. In The New World or Days of Heaven, the limited casts allow for more direction emotional involvement with the story, we know everyone's basic desires and as a result can sympathize with what's going on.

I guess the major issue for me is that Whit and Jack, the two most developed characters, look so much alike, I was constantly trying to keep track of which was which. They're all dressed the same and have the same hairstyle, so it's hard to follow things. I'm hoping if I watch it again, I'll be able to better separate the two of them, I remember the first time I watched it I had an even harder time telling who was who.

The story of Jack and his wife was one of the strongest parts of the film because of the way it was told. By keeping everything visual, we see her through his eyes, the beautiful photography capturing this idealized image of her that he's created. The scene where she's on the swing, or the later scene where she looks out the window are both incredibly striking matches of editing and composition. It's devestating when we find out she's left him.

That plays out in the downtime between the taking of the ridge and the final battle, the best section of the film. The combat scenes are shot in an interesting way, but ultimately it's something we've seen before and doesn't allow Malick to play to his strengths. It's during the downtime that we can explore more of what the characters are feeling. Whit's return to the village encapsulates the theme of the film, and positions it closely with the rest of Malick's oeuvre.

All of his films are about the corruption of Eden. Here it's the war turning this natural community into a battleground, a graveyard. Whit chooses to die at the end because he's seen too much, and can't go back to the way he was. The light he carried is gone, and without that, he doesn't want to live.

So, I think the film is successful on the whole, there's some amazing parts, but the combat scenes don't match up to the non-combat stuff. It may have been Malick's intent to make the combat less engaging than the rest of the film, but as a viewer, it means that about half the film is spent on less interesting material. However, Malick is able to reimagine the war movie and create something that I'd place alongside Apocalypse Now as the only essential war films. I'd rather see someone try something radically different, like Malick did here, than just churn out a formulaic combat melodrama like Taegukgi.

Malick is a master filmmaker because he is uniquely committed to working with what only film can do, using images and music to build connections rather than relying on dialogue or plot. And without this film, I don't think we'd have seen the even more experimental New World.

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