The Thin Red Line (1998)

The Thin Red Line – 1998

Director – Terrence Malick

Starring – Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Woody Harrelson

Terrence Malick’s floating, lyrical film about the battle of Guadalcanal in World War 2, avoids the clichés of most other big war epics.  Where other films seek to wow the audience with man’s inhumanity to other men, The Thin Red Line, instead seeks to show man’s absolute humanity.  For good or for ill soldiers are people, they get scared, their motivations are often impure, and they can be tremendously courageous.  Where a lot of other war films might dwell on the violence and carnage, Malick aims his camera towards the calm, and the natural stillness of the battlefield.  That is not to say their isn’t a fair share of action or death, it is after all a war film, about World War 2 in the Pacific, but it isn’t this action and cruelty that makes the soldiers great, it is their compassion, their courage, and their honor.

There is no hard and fast story in this film.  Instead we have a  general idea of the goals of the soldiers as we lilt back and forth between the men in this company learning about how each man deals with his circumstances.  We learn about each man not so much through back story, but through occasional inner monologue, and how they interact with the other men.  There really isn’t a main character, although the closest thing to it would be Jim Caviezel’s character, Private Witt.  The film opens with Private Witt living on an island in the South Pacific, after having gone AWOL, and follows his subsequent recapture, punishment, and re-stationing as a medic during the battle.  While he is not necessarily the main character at all times, he does touch the lives of each of the soldiers featured in the film, most heavily on Sgt. Welsh, played with surprising restraint by Sean Penn.

Nature plays a big role in this film, so much so that it shows just how much the soldiers and their war, are out-of-place here.  This concentration on nature provides some similarities to the films of Werner Herzog, in which nature is heavily featured and often plays a very central role in the story.  While not as overt as a Herzog film, the surroundings in The Thin Red Line do provide a visual and a metaphorical juxtaposition to the action.  Soldiers die in unspeakably beautiful surroundings and explosions and gun fire are the only things that drown out the roar of the river and a the call of the wildlife.

When the two sides finally see each other face to face it becomes obvious how similar they are, despite their opposing view points.  Both are made up of people who are scared, opportunistic, and brave.  The war makers are sitting in their respective countries, comfortable, and safe, while the war is being waged by common people with the least to gain and the most to lose.

By and large I really liked this film, aside from the compelling visuals, the acting and story telling managed to compliment the cinematography and avoid being too heavy-handed or preachy.  The only weak elements in this film, in my opinion are the music, and the poetic inner monologue.  The film, which runs at just under 3 hours, has the tendency to feel sluggish and repetitive, not because of the situations, not because of the lack of action, but because of the score, and the narration.  This semi-dramatic undercurrent of music swells at just the right time when the emotionally confused soldier has just seen the beauty of this land destroyed by war. 

Once the music swells, we get yet another semi vague, flowing, pondering on the nature of perception.  These elements work just fine to a certain degree, but ultimately are used far too often to inspire emotion, or to describe the absurdity of the conflict.  A huge teaching in film is, show, don’t tell.  What could be inferred into this statement also, is “Don’t do both.”  There are more than enough times where we understand exactly what we are supposed to, but the music swells and the narration comes in any way.  These are our cues that we are supposed to be walking away with some larger message, and frankly I didn’t need them.

This film was a quite refreshing despite its slight flaws.  It is rare that you come away from a war film that isn’t an actioneer type film with Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris, feeling uplifted and generally positive.  War films can be horrific, and disquieting, and contemplative, but The Thin Red Line shows that they can also be a cathartic, teaching experience, with more to offer than they take away.  Well done Mr. Malick.

Badlands (1973)

badlands

Badlands – 1973

Director – Terence Malick

Starring – Martin Sheen, and Sissy Spacek

I first had heard about the film Badlands through my regular subscription to the film review podcast Filmspotting. The two hosts periodically have marathons on a certain theme. This theme just happened to be “The New Hollywood”, films during the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s. Badlands, along with others such as Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, Mean Streets, In the Heat of the Night as well as a few others filled out the bill. The Filmspotting hosts spoke so highly of Badlands, and Terrence Malick, that I was instantly compelled to move this film up on my Netflix queue, and see what all the hullabaloo was about.

As far as directorial debuts go, Terence Malick’s Badlands is right up there with François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, American Beauty, by Sam Mendes, and Rian Johnson’s Brick. Badlands, like each of those other first films, is a breath of fresh air. Despite the fact that it was released in 1973, it’s age doesn’t show in the least. The young stars, Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek look younger than I’ve ever seen them, so much so, that it is almost hard to recognize them. This works to their advantage, making each pitch perfect in their roles of the rebellious, angsty young man, and the doting admirer who at the same time grounds him and is his inspiration for acting out. Everything they do, up until the end of the film, is done for the benefit of each other (this doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the just thing, or the lawful thing, but it is done entirely for the other person.)

There are times in this relationship where the love between the two main characters is at times stretched thin (especially when he kills), and at times exceedingly tender, but ultimately the two are on completely different paths, and eventually have to part ways.

***Spoilers***

One plot point that doesn’t really work is the reaction of Sissy Spacek’s character when Sheen kills her father. It is established early on that the father and daughter are not particularly close, but her reaction, or rather her lack of a reaction, doesn’t seem fitting. It holds with his characterization that he would be rather dismissive, and aloof about what he’d done, but just by virtue of the fact that the closest member of her family was murdered, by her boyfriend, seems like it deserves at least some outrage or anger.   Spacek’s character treats the killing the same way she might a burned dinner, or a ruined dress, bummed but not distressed.  Even though she is ultimately trading father figures, her real father for Kit (Sheen), I would imagine some sort of emotional blow up there, even if it’s anger directed towards the dying man.

I guess Spacek’s character is at least consistant throughout the film.  She continues to be the impartial observer throughout the entire sequence of events, from the murder, and robbery of each of their victims, down to the eventual fate of her doomed beau.

*** End Spoilers ***

Another thing that struck me about this film, is the fact that I’d seen a lot of it borrowed and co-opted by other films. Films such as Natural Born Killers borrow heavily from the plot of the film, while True Romance borrows heavily from the narration and musical elements ( I suppose this makes sense, as Quentin Tarantino, the writer of both Natural Born Killers and True Romance, is a master of borrowing good bits from other films, revitalizing them, and making them his own.)

While it was certainly worthy of mention as an important landmark film, I can’t say that Badlands affected me quite as much as other films in the Filmspotting new Hollywood marathon did when I first saw them. While I’d like to watch Badlands again to get more from it, I’ll take Bonnie and Clyde, or Midnight Cowboy any day of the week!