Sunday, July 10, 2011

Not-so-quick Re-assessment: Terrence Malick's THE THIN RED LINE

"Where's your spark now?" 

When I saw The Thin Red Line in the theater upon its original release in January 1999 (following its limited theatrical run in 1998), and my memory of that experience is somewhat limited.  It was at a time when I, like now, saw a lot of movies, and was in the mire of high school.  It didn't have the immediate impact of its most compared (and, ultimately at the box-office and with critics, more revered) WW2 film, Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.  In fact it might be hard to find a review that doesn't mention it somewhere.  But it's also a difficult thing to follow-up something that Spielberg did that on its own terms was so groundbreaking (for better and/or for worse, we have a ton of shaky-cam movies to thank for it, both good and bad) and had such heart and moral integrity in the face of a topic that hadn't been looked at such as it had in that film.

And, at the time, Malick's film didn't really stick for me.  There was no real animosity to it, I knew at the time it was a good movie with a strong ensemble cast and heart-racing action, but the mood of the piece, how Malick would cut from a battle scene to, say, a baby bird or a crocodile or other animals or the sky, was jarring in a way that was hard to understand... until now. 

Seeing the film after becoming, frankly, more cinematically sophisticated (and it being my first Malick film a virgin as to what to expect), and not being so young, its impact is felt deeper, and its strengths are tremendous.  It is in a great sense philosophical - albeit one can also say the same for Spielberg, though he works on more of a conventional Hollywood style - about its subject, which is what happens when man brings chaos and bloodshed to its nature.  Why stop at the surface of what's significant about war; indeed it being World War II, the "Great War" so to speak, makes it all the more touching.

We don't need to be told here that the war had to be fought, that should be taken as a given... or maybe not.  In Malick's adaptation of James Jones novel (ironically for such an auteur this technically counts as his one and only sequel - the book being such to From Here to Eternity - AND a remake of the 1964 film, though little seen), it's the tale of Guadancanal, a set of islands with indigenous peoples that was being used as a stronghold by the Japanese, to which the US goes in to take back inch by agonizing inch as the 'Japs' have a stronghold set up.  It could win the war, we're told at one point (or maybe just pondered by Nick Nolte's Lt. Col. Tall, who I'll get a little more to in a moment), but strategy isn't really of concern either.  We see the carnage, we see the bodies blown to bits and even 'accidents' happening, such as the fate of Woody Harrelson's unlucky Sgt.

What Malick is more interested in is the what are the thoughts of these soldiers fighting, what are their real hopes and desires and fears and just plan 'what is going on at this moment I see' notes, so there is narration (in a Terrence Malick, movie you don't say).  It's different this time than in other films by the director, whereas before and since it's been one character.  Here we're privy to the inner ponderings of those on high (Nolte) and those fighting at the bottom (Ben Chaplain's Private Bell, who also gets a lot of time devoted to his wife back home), and even, if I'm not mistaken, a moment of narration from one of the Japanese.  That is a startling moment, as the person, I think, is near death.  This could also be cross-chatter, but whatever.  The effect is intriguing, devastating, and, yes, poetic in that way the mind moves along, as is its nature.

The Thin Red Line, for the 'action aficionado' watching, or just casual fan, does deliver on that count.  Don't let your friends what they say fool you (I remember well, when I was younger, hearing "Yeah, that movie, it's just a bunch of boring crocodiles and shit").  Malick and his cinematographer, the great John Toll, shows battle with some ferocious pacing and some surprising moments, and some real heart, too.  In the midst of the battle going on at the hill, where the soldiers are not so much outnumbered as outplaced and out-maneuvered, Elias Koteas is on the phone with an enraged Nolte, who tells him to go and attack.  Koteas refuses the order, not with any malice but by the simple logic that he needs more men and more time.  It's an intense scene not for the obvious, that it's a man refusing an order in the middle of battle, but because Col. Toll knows his Captain may be right, or could be, and knows how it looks.  It's an untenable situation with guns and rockets going all over. 

It's something like that, and other scenes with Nolte especially where he has this conflict (established earlier with his superior, played by John Travolta, as his narration confirms how much he can't stand those above him who don't know what it's like fighting on the ground), as he wants to do the right thing for his men, and at the same time has to look and *be* always strong, always knowing what to do next.  Watch the scene where, following the taking of the bunker, he talks with John Cusack, another Captain, about how the momentum has to keep on going despite the problem with the water for the troops (i.e. there isn't any).  He sounds one way but his manner conveys something else; he projects that All-American pride in going forward and winning the day, and sounds gruff and In-Command, but I don't know.  Something about it doesn't sound quite right.  Cusack's reaction says this too when Malick cuts to it - what kind of war are they fighting here?

Example: a shot may go from something like, say, a parrot... "HOLY FUCK WHAT HAPPENED TO HIS BODY!?!?!"
In the film there is something probably obvious to any junior film critic and/or regular movie-goer that what the filmmaker is doing is a contrast study - we see these natives at the start on this island, doing their thing in their tribe with Jim Caviezel's AWOL guy (I suppose he is AWOL, he's threatened with court-martial but it never really comes up again, though I digress), and we see this almost as a documentary; one wonders if we've wandered into a Herzog picture on just, well, any Herzog movie will do (Cobra Verde anyone?) 

But where Herzog may have a love-hate relationship with the natural world, Malick uses it as a means to show what is so primal about it, and what wonder may be there for us to see, in the animals, the trees, the mountains, the sky.  And there are these shots, sometimes very long in length, and then those scenes of battle and combat and with the soldiers sometimes squatting down, unsure, frazzled, crying, tired, weary, occasionally trying to keep professional, and this contrast builds to something meaningful.

How much meaning really will depend on what you take of such an unconventional method of cutting.  The army scene, while shot naturalistic, are still done with the kind of stedi-cans and tracking shots (sometimes hand-held, it's brief though) that would mark a slick Hollywood production - ironic then that Spielberg's film was much more into the gritty, personal style.  But these battle scenes still pack a wallop and should appeal to any fan of just hard action movies (it certainly did me when I was younger, that's what I remembered most about it aside from the small roles for actors I recognized)... until it cuts to those shots of nature, or of the grasses of the fields blowing in the winds, or those cut-aways that Chaplain's character has to 'back-home' with his wife, all images that (as the point) are those idealized moments with her, holding her and loving her, seeing her on a swing (as if in the God's POV as happens in Malick movies, upside down), and it could take people out of the movie for those stretches.

Or shots of 'Hellooo Ben Chaplain's Wife-Nurse!"
Seeing the film again, it all worked together splendidly.  A line or two of narration could have been cut but I can't really say for the life of me where.  The contrast between the natural world of the natives and animal and plant life with those soldiers in their uniforms and holding their weapons and killing each other is striking and obvious, but it works for what Mallick is after here.  What is nature except following what is, well, natural to it?  If you're a soldier, you'll probably have to fight, and kill, or be killed, and that's not something that should jive with what the natural world does... or, perhaps, it is just another part of it (there are cut-aways to bats... and then a cut-away to a crocodile tied to a truck by the soldier that highlights this, the latter a display of man trying to control nature in a much more blunt way than their stomping around killing and maiming).  For all of the battle plans and tactical maneuvers, people will be people. 

I suspect that the most the movie becomes 'anti-war', aside from such examples like the Nolte/Koteas scene, or the ones where Private Witt reflects back on his time with the indigenous populus as he loses his humanity during war (if it is that), is following a rather rough and quick battle in a village.  It's not a fast lead up, as at first there is the tranquility of the natural green world around them and the village itself.  Then the soldiers come, and the cuts quicken immensely in the film, sometimes a shot as quick as half-a-second, and then once the blood and mayhem is finished, the aftermath is shown.  All the bodies of the Japanese, sure, but also how the Japanese may not stay down, or how one talks in pleading, or just asking, or cursing, or just sitting quietly in a solemn prayer.  It's here, too, we get some characteristically high-emotional music from Hans Zimmer.  It's dramatic, it's sad.  And damn if it wasn't affecting for me.

You are TEARING ME APART Gaudalcanal!

One more thing to notice during the film, and Malick's 'meditations' as it were on the condition of war and men in combat with one another in a "strange" land.  The cast - some are here in the 'lead' roles, like Caviezel and Sean Penn (who was the only one sort of underdeveloped until near the end oddly enough), and Nolte and Koteas.  Other actors seem to just drift in and out of the picture. 

This is not an accident on Malick's part; aside from the cast just being so big anyway, in the world of the army life people just drift in and out, people may be significant for a moment like Travolta's general or (near the very end) Clooney's Captain Bosche, or the smaller guns like John C. Reilly, John Savage (didn't he learn from Deer Hunter, hmm?), Adrien Brody, John Cusack (who at first I thought had just wandered on set somehow and got a part), and Thomas Jane among others.  Such lives are so fleeting that there can be pretty rare connections with one another, which does happen with Caviezel and Penn and, for a moment, Harrelson.  Why should life be so fleeting? 

I have no real idea, by the end of the film, what Terrence Malick thought of World War II, or the battle there in Guadalcanal.  If he doesn't have respect for the troops he could have fooled me.  But his points, as always throughout his career, are much grander than just about "War is Hell".  That's not good enough here.  What's at stake with the human soul, and how we're connected to the natural world?  What does fighting, even in the face of "good", really amount to? 

 Spielberg dealt with the war his way, and Malick fights his inner demons via James Jones' book with a huge canvas, probably the biggest he ever had, or will (Tree of Life's solar systems included).  The soul can love, or be loved, but what about doing the job of killing and carnage?  And what about those crocodiles or the baby bird or those chickens running around, or those tribespeople canoeing in the lake?  It's a dense film, but highly watchable and never boring, and, perhaps, the director's grandest achievement in the relatively small time he's fiddled in the medium.