After his stunning film Days of Heaven, director Terrence Malick disappeared from filmmaking for two decades. It’s hard to imagine what aspect of The Thin Red Line prompted Malick to return. It’s a bizarre, often ephemeral piece of filmmaking (an aspect that Malick excels at), though it’s hardly a coherent piece of cinema, at least on a meta level.
Who is the main character? We begin the story following one man, but suddenly there are a dozen, none of which are given their due. John Travolta shows up and disappears just as fast. Sean Penn is there the entire time, his jaw stern and eyes pensive. Adrian Brody is there in the background, wide eyed and nervous. George Clooney appears for only a moment. Eventually you realized that John Cusack has been hidden beneath a helmet and sweaty hair this whole time. It’s hard not to be distracted in this sense. They’re treated the same as any actor filling a small role, but their star power suggests more. Perhaps the only coherent character is Nick Nolte as a Lieutenant. We can see his mouth quiver. He expresses himself in a rage, and we come to understand his motivations. Everyone else is nothing.
There is no main character or emotional thread. Instead, our character is the camera, a sometimes spritely entity who is observing this bizarre drama that is war. It has a certain detachment from the ground that it can achieve, allowing it to look upon the soldiers in a way that emphasizes the fleeting fashion of it all. Unfortunately, the camerawork here is not as rigorous as on the gorgeous Days of Heaven, which was shot only when the wheat fields were aglow with the setting sun. Here, during conversations the camera is idle and rooted. Other times it’s trying to covey that this is a big budget war film, like when it is positioned in front of a large ship and pointed at the rippling ocean.
It is not until very late in the film that we finally see the enemy. We know they are there. The soldiers are fired upon, blown up, shot down. The enemy are nothing, and it all seems quite futile rushing up a hill that kills nearly all that attempt to climb it. This is what the battle is. Men being thrown around and brutally destroyed. When finally we see the enemy, they are exactly the same as our soldiers. Clad in green, frantic. The close encounters are a mess. The film succeeds in conveying the pointlessness of war. It is horrifying for all and no more than a waste of humanity.
The third act of this film is a slow drag toward no conclusion. The first act of this film is a set up of no characters. There is a battle at the film’s center that is well over an hour long, and it is engaging and the core of this film. Perhaps another two hours could have elaborated upon it all. Or perhaps cutting an hour would have made it feel a bit more taught. There are sometimes voiceovers, men’s raspy whispers of poetic and hardly intelligible language that does little to explain themselves or their cause, only to muse in the same manner as the camera, and as such to be redundant and only a means of showing beautiful and wistful flashbacks that serve no purpose. There may well be a good, strong film in here, but it is not in this cut.
This is not to say that The Thin Red Line is a bad film. It is in many ways strong and contemplative, and it very masterfully shows war for what it is. Other films may show war as scary or heroic, but The Thin Red Line truly displays war as a mess. There is no difference between the sides. Both are terrified. Both are ripped apart and laying on the ground in the end.