A study in pretension, The Thin Red Line marks the infamously reclusive director Terrence Malick’s anticlimactic return to the cinema. On the surface, the film is a war movie, based on the James Jones novel of the same name. But, this film has no real interest in telling a war story at all. Instead, the film embarks on an artsy philosophical journey to discover the soul, a journey so long and painful that one might prefer the war itself.
The closest thing the film has to a central character is one Private Witt (Jim Caviezel). At the opening of the film, he and another soldier have gone AWOL to live in a virtual Eden with some islanders. However, Witt is soon captured and sent into the Battle of Guadalcanal.
A few other stories intertwine throughout the film’s wanderings. Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) pines for his wife back home. Lt. Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) is eager for a battle. Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) doesn’t share his commanding officer’s bloodlust, and searches for a better way to use his men.
But, intermingled with the war (and sometimes overlaid on top of it), the soldiers (turned poet-philosophers) contemplate eternal questions of life. Is mankind apart from nature or a part of it? Where does evil come from? Is war a natural phenomenon? What is the nature of the soul? And other, similarly pretentious, unanswerable questions are posed with regularity throughout the film.
The Thin Red Line is actually composed of two separate films that try, but are never able, to merge into a complete whole. There’s the traditional war story on one hand, delivering the overly familiar scenes of nervous soldiers heading to battle and plunged into the hellish thicket of combat. The other film is a puffed-up philosophical National Geographic piece. Lingering shots of wildlife, the local flora and fauna, and the idyllic lives of the Melanesian islanders intertwine with portentous philosophical ramblings. Though the two films are thoroughly intercut and overlaid, there’s never a sense that one relates to the other. Would these soldiers be thinking these thoughts? No…it sounds much more like the self-important words a screenwriter might dream up than an epiphany discovered on the field of battle.
As was likely intended, most of the characters in the film blend together (in an attempt to show the face of the every-soldier). A few faces are distinctive, but aside from the wildly out of place (and thankfully brief) cameos by stars such as John Travolta, George Clooney and Woody Harrelson, only a few are memorable. And those memorable ones are poorly used. Sean Penn’s Sergeant Welsh, for example, is played with intensity, but with no purpose. Though the characters are constantly in jeopardy, you don’t really care. In fact, the film is orchestrated in such a way to distance the audience from even knowing or caring about them at all.
On the bright side, The Thin Red Line boasts some very gorgeous imagery. Shots of nature and shots of war are all examine for their inner beauty. Unfortunately, by the umpteenth time we are shown a shot of the sunlight filtering down through the trees, you simply wish the film would hurry up and get over with.
Neither half of The Thin Red Line is overly bad by itself. However, the convergence of the two creates a nightmare. Too self-important and vague for war film lovers, and too grounded and mundane for art film devotees, The Thin Red Line will fail to please nearly everyone.