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).
By the time the movie is well into its core event--a frontal drive up a well-fortified hill--even the dead are speaking in voiceover. Smoke clears, and we see a close-up of a Japanese soldier's face--just the face, which looks like a totemic carving, since the rest of the man already lies buried in dust. He proves to be a philosophical corpse. Do you think, he asks Witt, that you will not suffer, because you love the good and the true?
Hold that thought too, because now I've got a question of my own. When the corpse speaks, are we to assume that the voice is in Witt's head--that we're listening in on the wonderings of a holy fool from Kentucky, made eloquent (or perhaps flowery) by Terrence Malick? Or are we to imagine the spirit of the corpse is actually making itself known? In that case, Witt wouldn't be merely a holy fool. He'd be holy--the only character to understand the godlike omniscience toward which The Thin Red Line would be striving.
I regret to inform you that the latter reading is probably correct. The Thin Red Line is a vastly complex symphony of characters' thoughts and points of view, realized with a clarity that often dazzles; but the parts, by themselves, are numbingly simple, as if each instrument in an orchestra were permitted to play just one pitch, at a single volume. Colonel Tall does nothing but scream and turn red in the face, while his thoughts churn about how he's been passed over for promotion. Captain Staros spends all his time pinching in his lips, as if he's holding down bile, while he frets over the well-being of his men. Then there's Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), whose inner life consists entirely of soft-core porn images of his wife. Witt is as simple as all these souls with his goopy, pitying stare, which looks borrowed from a third-rate Spanish Baroque painting of the Sacred Heart. But his position within the film is elevated; he alone is granted a glimpse of the universal compassion of God, or Terrence Malick.
And so, while the battle rages, we see a wounded bird struggling pathetically on the ground, or a snake trailing with malice aforethought toward a soldier (who thinks his only problem is the gunfire in front), or a swarm of bats in the trees, chittering with overtones of mockery and carnivorousness. You see why I keep lapsing into capitalization. In this movie, War is an expression of Nature, and Nature, for all its teeming show, turns out to be stunningly simpleminded.
We come to the unavoidable point of comparison: Saving Private Ryan. Say what you will against that movie, it's about a specific war, fought for specific reasons in a specific time and place. The Thin Red Line is altogether more artful an object--Malick disdains using the cinematic conventions that Spielberg so freely employs (and breaks in their employment)--but it's metaphysical guff.
Better to take a less obvious point of comparison. Turn away from Nick Nolte in The Thin Red Line and you can find him this season in another film, Affliction. Based on a novel by Russell Banks and directed by Paul Schrader, Affliction is a far deeper work of art than The Thin Red Line, and far more involving. But it's shabby to praise Schrader at Malick's expense. Here's what I can say for Affliction on its own terms:
Nolte plays Wade Whitehouse, a jack-of-no-trades who's bluffing his way through life in a little New Hampshire town. He's got a younger brother (played by Willem Dafoe) who teaches history in Boston and narrates the sad tale in voiceover. "There but for the grace of God go I" is the theme of the voiceover; or perhaps, "There, even with God's grace, go I."
Wade also has a live-in girlfriend (Sissy Spacek) who's no longer a girl. She's a resilient woman who works as the waitress at the town's one cafe, loves Wade and gives him credit as the man he'd like to be. Wade needs the credit. Just ask his ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt), who gets exasperated with him over little things: for example, leaving their young daughter by herself on Halloween (when he's got visitation rights) so he can ride in a pickup with his buddy (Jim True) and smoke some weed.
Finally, Wade has a father (James Coburn): a drunken, useless, blustering, sarcastic brute, who sometimes looms over Wade in grainy, home-movie-style flashbacks. The story of Affliction: how Wade comes apart one year during deer-hunting season, succumbing to the father within him, after a lifetime of begging off.
This isn't cheerful stuff. It isn't meant to be; but it brings you the exhilaration that comes from rush after rush of adrenaline. Schrader somehow makes every moment of the film play like an emotional high point. Everything is memorable: from the first shots of Wade riding in a police sedan with his disaffected daughter (dressed for Halloween in a plastic tiger mask) to the image near the end of Wade at his dining table, calmly pouring a drink despite the conflagration that roars outside, visible through the picture window.
For reasons unknown to me, and about which I should not guess, Affliction has languished unreleased for almost a year. We should be grateful that it's in theaters at last. I don't imagine it will be easy for it to shoulder aside the gaudier year-end releases. But despite its modest exterior, Affliction is a big movie, with a big, deeply committed performance by Nolte, who is joined by a wonderful ensemble. My holiday movie recommendation: Bundle up against the chill, outside and in, and see Affliction.