The Thin Red Line
Let's start by going back to those first films. "Badlands" was the story of a psychopathic young killer, played by Martin Sheen, and his girlfriend, Sissy Spacek, as they careen through the upper plains states murdering people. The film is narrated by Spacek's character, a not-too-bright teenager in love with anything that sounds romantic and takes her out of her dreary life, telling us about their odyssey in a fascinatingly cool, straightforward, unemotional voice that lends the perfect distance to what would otherwise be unbearable events to watch. It was an amazing first feature, and seemed to portend a great career for Malick.
And yet for me his second film, "Days of Heaven," was a failure, salvaged only by the sumptuous cinematography of the great Nestor Almendros, who had been responsible for the gorgeous look of many of Truffaut's and Rohmer's films. "Days of Heaven" was in retrospect an ominous foreshadowing of the faults we now see marring "The Thin Red Line." Slow as sludge, portentous without a catharsis, lacking in any communication of emotion, and underwritten to the point of muteness, "Days of Heaven" was at its best a noble failure, to be redeemed, we hoped, by his next one.
Well, twenty years later this is his next film, and it is both his best and his worst, all at once. We can start by putting aside the James Jones novel, because the film, if it is related to the book in any way, is a kind of meditation on it and not a transposition to another medium. In an uncanny parallel to "Saving Private Ryan," the first two-thirds of the film take us along with a platoon, onto the beach, into the jungle, and up a hill to a Japanese-held bunker. Malick here has a genius for conveying the horror and the fear and the sadness and the enormous irrationality of war by the time it works its way down to the foot-soldiers who must stand, shoot, and be shot according to someone else's strategy, without rhyme or reason, or even the chance to question it.
This is the very best part of the film, and it can be compared favorably with the opening of "Private Ryan" because Malick has taken just enough time beforehand to give us a better sense of the men we're going to follow later on. Somehow, even though we don't know much about them as people, Malick makes us feel the emotions that they do. Spielberg, on the other hand, was more concerned with anatomy than with feelings.
Having said that, it's now necessary to point out that Malick has decided not to write a script. His people barely talk to each other; in fact they soliloquize frequently and gassily, and barely find time to give directions. "Go!" and "Run!" and "Down!" are the most common lines in the film. Because he's the legendary Terrence Malick he's assembled a cast that includes almost everybody in town: Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, and even a tiny bit for John Travolta. But Nolte is just a caricature of an obsessed Colonel trying to make his mark. He does nothing but rant and rave, twist and shout you might say, in a performance that's so over the top you spend most of the film wishing some sniper would just take him out. Penn, because he's the great actor of his generation, makes something believable of a character who has maybe twelve lines in the whole film, none of them revealing in any way. Elias Koteas as the long-suffering platoon captain, is moving and even heroic, and lends a much-needed touch of sanity to the action of the film.
Anyone who's been away from his métier -- any field, it doesn't matter -- for twenty years is going to be rusty; that is, he will make wrong choices and lose focus from time to time. It's to be expected. Malick shows us here that he still has his great eye for color and composition, and that he can edit a sequence as well as anyone has ever done, which is a great achievement in itself. But he has focused so much on image and rhythm that he's forgotten to make a movie, and we all pay the price.