For twenty years, Terrence Malick has been absent from the screen, abandoning the world’s filmoids to their own devices: to watch Badlands and Days of Heaven till the prints turn puce; to translate rumors of Malick’s reclusiveness into the stuff of urban myth; to speculate on his reluctance to carry through any project. Now, at last, he has directed a third picture–his adaptation of James Jones’s novel The Thin Red Line–and Expectation sits quaking in the third row center, too keyed up to eat her popcorn. At the first touch of the projector’s beam, will the screen deliquesce? Maybe bats and butterflies will flutter forward from an endless depth, to circle the viewers’ heads. The Earth Spirit will speak, shaking the theater with its fearsome drone; and War–savage, absolute, insatiable–will pour upon the rapt spectators, from the first hour unto the third.
I suppose that’s one way to describe The Thin Red Line. Or, with as much justice, you might say Malick waited twenty years to give us the first New Age World War II movie.
In a useful article in Vanity Fair, Peter Biskind has detailed Malick’s devotion to the novel; but fidelity to the source isn’t evident in the finished film, nor should it be an issue. (We are dealing with an author who could write, without irony, of his characters’ "baptism of fire." His method of exposition: to have a soldier on a troop transport remark, "So this is Guadalcanal.") Whatever you may think of Malick’s intellectual attainments, his instincts as an artist are both too strong and too refined for such shleppery. His Thin Red Line, unlike Jones’s, begins with an extended vision of Paradise as a tropical rainforest (where the murkier waters nevertheless conceal crocodiles). The camera, seemingly governed by heliotropism, pans upward from the massive trunk of a buttress tree to glimpse how sunlight filters through the forest canopy. Plunged into crystalline water, the lens looks up again, watching as children swim against the light.
Then the camera abruptly finds itself in an oceangoing canoe, being paddled along by a cheerful, half-naked man, who looks out of place in this setting only because dog tags dangle from his pinkish neck. As we will learn (but not too soon), this jug-eared, almond-eyed youth is Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), whose main business at the beginning of the movie is to philosophize in voiceover ("Why does the land contend with the sea?"), to recall his mother’s death in faraway Kentucky (scenes of homespun Americana break upon the screen), to flirt with a dark-skinned woman and observe that the dark-skinned children in her village don’t fight with one another.
Malick keeps this island-paradise reverie going for so long that when a patrol boat finally cuts into the frame, you’re as jolted as Private Witt, who has just been caught AWOL. Without transition, he’s locked into an almost blackened nonspace. Is it a cell? If so, where? We never find out, presumably because the terms of punishment are less interesting to Malick than the possibility of making Witt engage in aphoristic debate with the cynical Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn). Is the world of our senses the ultimate reality, as Welsh maintains? Or are we all members of a single Oversoul?
Hold that thought, because another fragment of Oversoul is about to speak. On the deck of a troop transport bound for Guadalcanal, Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) squints into the wind and tries to suck in his cigarette in a single breath. The camera circles him obsessively, while his voiceover growls about lovelessness and lack of respect. Then it’s down into the hold, amid narrow rows of bunks and a dim, metallic light, to listen to still more voiceovers, from selected infantrymen of C Company and their commanding officer, Captain Staros (Elias Koteas).