Even if this year has been mediocre in terms of movies actually released in 2017, it has been phenomenal in terms of stuff I’ve been introduced to for the first time, with Inland Empire, Suspiria and now The Thin Red Line establishing themselves as favourites. The last one in particular is the most surpsising, given that it’s a Terrence Malick flick, and a war flick.
My previous experience with Malick established him as a filmmaker I respect more than I actually like. He has an approach to narrative which for lack of a better phrase is very stream-of-consciousness, with the imagery unfolding less according to traditional movie logic than to a more poetic or emotional logic. This, combined with his penchant for voice-over narration, almost gives his movies an overly literary feeling, as if he were trying to recapture the effect of reading, say, William Faulkner or T.S. Eliot on film. It’s absolutely fascinating to watch, but its overall effect hasn’t always added up to a completely satisfying movie experience.
But in The Thin Red Line, everything just clicks together beautifully.
The movie follows a World War II battalion during the battle for Guadalcanal, but it doesn’t have a plot per se. It doesn’t have a protagonist or even what we’d typically call an ensemble cast, since it fails to even establish which characters are important and which merely incidental, with various people drifting in and out of focus as things unfold. The effect is confusing, but also kaleidoscopic, with Malick’s style weaving us through the various thoughts, feelings and experiences of the battalion in dreamlike fashion.
This is key to how the combat scenes unfold, and helped me to articulate an issue I have with a lot of war movies: the “you are there” realist approach to war scenes almost always registers more as spectacle than as horror, which often clashes against the movie’s own intentions in depicting the horrors of warfare. The Thin Red Line is less interested in capturing the realism of battle than it is in having us subjectively experience violence as chaos, dissonance and disruption, and it’s all the more emotionally potent as a result.
This, in turn, elevates the movie from being about one particular historical conflict into being about violence and conflict in general. Except that it’s not just about that; in similar fashion to its kaleidoscopic narrative, the movie thematically dances around a number of different things, from war to nature to love to spirituality without allowing one to become dominant. More than that, it never pushes its material to the point of a conceptually graspable thesis statement, always content to remain suggestive and evocative.
There really is no hook to the movie, no real guiding through-line that the audience can grasp onto, which gives the whole affair a dreamlike feel, but as if it were the audience themselves were having this waking dream (or nightmare). Whether or not you’re able to gel with this goes a good way to whether it’s able to work on you.
Anyway, it’s a movie teeming with incident and detail that remains difficult to sum up, so any post about it is either going to be short or really long, and I’m going to prefer the former right now. But as a closing observation it’s worth highlighting that this was a really big budget production backed by a major studio. Something like that happening was already unique by 1998 standards, but nowadays it’s borderline unthinkable.