It’s easy, almost inevitable, to see the brutality of war as proof of the absence of God. It takes a peculiar, and peculiarly strong, sort of faith to see things the opposite way. “This great evil, where does it come from? How did it steal into the world?” one character wonders in Terrence Malick’s 1998 film The Thin Red Line, to the accompaniment of some brutal imagery. He may not be thinking big enough. Malick mixes the grim war story of James Jones’ experienced-based World War II novel about the invasion of Guadalcanal with the voiceovers and nature images that have become his directorial signature. As the film progresses, his characters’ thoughts draw toward the conclusion that all living things participate in a cosmic consciousness defined by struggle. It’s a radical, pantheistic vision of the world that might seem pretentious and New Age-y, but the story around it makes the observations seem hard-won, and the sweep and beauty of the film makes them ring true.
The Thin Red Line was only Malick’s third film, and his first after a long break following Days Of Heaven in 1978. In a supplemental feature on the new DVD and Blu-ray version of the film, a pair of editors with whom Malick worked suggest he chose the project less for the story than for its ruminative opportunities, cutting out narrative in favor of voiceover opportunities, watching footage while letting music—Green Day, specifically—drown out the dialogue, and reducing roles radically. (At one point, Adrien Brody’s character was to have been the film’s protagonist. In the finished version, he has few scenes and fewer lines.) Almost miraculously, a coherent story emerges in the final film, but it matters less than the impressions Malick uses that story to create.
Jim Caviezel, then a strikingly expressive newcomer, plays an AWOL private first seen enjoying an Edenic retreat with a tribe of Solomon Islanders. Imprisoned and chewed out by a hard-bitten, softhearted sergeant (Sean Penn), he winds up in a unit assigned to attack Guadalcanal. Once there, he watches a compassionate captain (a never-better Elias Koteas) resist orders to attack a strategically positioned Japanese bunker. (Meanwhile, big-name stars eager to work with Malick, and whose participation helped get the film made, provide background support.) Caviezel also sees the horrors of war head-on: Soldiers die en masse, mowed down by the enemy. Or they die quick deaths, picked off by snipers, with no chance to resist. Or they suffer prolonged anguish that morphine can dull, but never extinguish. Or they live in fear of the death that surrounds them.
Yet here, at least, the nearness of death forces those in its midst to turn philosophical, and the balance of magnificence and mortality gives the film its mesmerizing hold. Other war films have presented the terrors and tragedies of war just as unflinchingly. Others have found a rugged humanism among those tragedies. But Malick goes further, trying to puzzle out what about war makes us human, and willingly accepting whatever wonders and awful truths present themselves as answers.
Key features: Plenty. Though the typically elusive Malick doesn’t show up for the fairly dry commentary track, the special features about the casting and editing of the film, and the interviews with actors, offer some insights into Malick’s process. There are only 14 minutes of outtakes, however, which leaves plenty in the vault from the original five-hour cut that featured Billy Bob Thornton and others.