The Thin Red Line

20th Century-Fox, 1998

“You ever get lonely?”

“Only around people.”

—James Caviezel to Sean Penn

After a seventeen year absence from Hollywood, director Terrence Malick makes a powerful return with the most humanist, existential depiction of men and battle since Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954).

Reviewers are fond of comparison. But if any parallels are to be drawn between Malick and any other artist, then we are compelled to look, not to Hollywood past, but to legendary painter, Edward Hopper. While bastardizations of Hopper’s most famous works, such as the house from Psycho, and the poster “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (in which the anonymous figures from “Night Hawks” were replaced by likenesses of Marilyn Monroe, Bogart and James Dean), keep vague traces of Hopper’s work cemented in our memories, the body of his work focused on exploring the alienation of man and the loss of individuality. Hopper came to the fore in the 1930s and 40s, an era when cities and corporations gradually swallowed rural, closeknit communities, and the harsh glare of neon eclipsed the sun as the primary source of illumination. People fought to relate to one another, to communicate, if only futilely; to maintain some shred of identity in a rapidly changing present and an uncertain future. As if those struggles weren’t Herculean enough, war raged around the globe.

Finding echoes in Hopper’s work, Malick’s is a war which all men face alone. Not in the nihilistic vein of Vietnam films which concern themselves specifically with the breakdown of the military-unit-as-microcosm-of-society, but in the sense that the terrors which men face on the brink of combat, and the motivations that impel them forward, are intensely personal, widely varied, and wholly inexplicable.

Conflict is The Thin Red Line’s one constant. Not in the broader, physical sense of war, but in philosophical and psychological terms: moral, personal and emotional. Men on both sides face the same pain and disaffection, the sorrow and loneliness which comes with facing the constant threat of death. The players find no answers in the turmoil, only an ever increasing burden of issues. Survival. Existence. Mortality. Purpose. They are everymen. They are us.

Despite the obvious and preliminary comparisons between The Thin Red Line and the year’s other World War II picture, Saving Private Ryan, that is where the similarities begin and end. While Spielberg’s film, after a brutal opening, gradually deteriorates into an increasingly conventional war film, Malick holds steadfastly to his course. Unfortunately, it is a path that, by and large, will be lost on audiences who come expecting spoon-fed entertainment. Malick has carefully crafted the visual equivalent of a Homeric epic, all the while maintaining the poetry and lyric qualities of the form. He doesn’t feel compelled to answer questions. In fact he doesn’t feel compelled to provide what could be more broadly considered “plot.” The Thin Red Line functions as a constant stream of narrative, enveloping and enfolding the viewer in the lives and memories, circumstances and motivations of the numerous characters. What emerges is something truly profound – almost religious. You come away from the film with less of a sense of specific remembrances of the film, but of having participated in something deeply moving and unforgettable.