Film DVD Culture
THE THIN RED LINE
The Thin Red Line
(The Criterion Collection)
For Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven), the world is a cathedral. Even the most venal acts of man take place in sanctified space because it’s all sanctified. Malick hears celestial music emanating from the sky and trees, sunlight piercing a forest, water running over rocks. He communicates the celestiality he sees and hears through film’s essence, light. No director save Godard so adores or is so attuned to the luminescence of the world. Malick’s pursuit of that luminescence, and the indirect naturalist cadences of his dialogue, makes him a poetic realist.
The natural world cries out, begging man to see the potential for transcendence. But man’s too neurotic and self-invovled to heed the message. It’s not that he’d necessarily rather kill. He just wants a moment’s peace from the questions that torment him, and that rampant nature underscores. Might killing or avoiding being killed still even one of the voices in his head? Sadly, no. Men argue, mostly with themselves, about abstractions that the nature surrounding them—not to mention the other men trying to murder them—renders moot. Nature goes about its business, and that business contains no mercy. Malick embraces it all.
The Thin Red Line opens with a crocodile that seems to be Satan incarnate sliding into a scummy green pond—a transcendently beautiful scummy green pond—and sinking out of sight as apocalyptic church music soars. There, as they said in Vietnam, it is. We are entering a jungle, and it’s not that the jungle doesn’t like us. The jungle doesn’t care. The law of the jungle is exactly that, and it is that law which will keep the jungle what it is. But this indifferent jungle contains much man-made evil. That croc’s swimming around in the scummy green ponds of our souls. It’s bound to resurface somewhere. Keep heading into the jungle, and Satan’s going to manifest.
And boy does he ever. Based on James Jones’s novel of the American invasion of the Japanese-held Guadalcanal island in World War II, The Thin Red Line presents combat as a fever dream, and we are the dreamers. Malick edits so that every cut—every single cut to a human being—puts us instantly into the psychological state of the person he’s cut to. No film was ever edited like this, a $70 million indie art-house war epic that hurls us from one character to another for 171 minutes. Wounded men shrieking for enough morphine to kill them, soldiers within arm’s length shooting one another, generals throwing psychotic hissy fits (Nick Nolte as the embodiment of abusive paternal rage), whatever. The action might dominate the moment, but the men’s internal dialogues are not altered by the mayhem around them, or by the subsequent peace and quiet.
Criterion’s print captures all of Malick’s luminescence. The Extras feature a telling interview with casting director Dianne Crittenden, and a number of actors. The most articulate proves to be Sean Penn. While everyone’s in awe of Malick, Penn best describes what it meant for all these stars and 22-year-old then-unknowns to head off to Australia for who knew how long a shoot for the minimum possible money: “Career suicide.”