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Review: The Thin Red Line (1998)

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Directed by: Terrence Malick

Premise: Based on James Jones’ book, the film tells the story of American soldiers fighting the Japanese for control over Guadalcanal during World War II.

What Works: The Thin Red Line is a terrific piece of film. Terrence Malick is a great filmmaker and his work consistently demonstrates a perfectionist level of cinematic craft. The Thin Red Line is unlike any other war film ever made; the picture is about the soldiers as a group, taking time to pause and analyze one, then moving on to others, and sometimes returning to apply the experiences of other characters to someone else. As a result, the film manages to be simultaneously about the cumulative experience of the group and about the narratives of individual characters. This film flows organically from one set piece to another and one character to another and the cinematography and sound design are gorgeous. The taking of the hill is an arduous and bloody conflict and the film portrays it very carefully, revealing the horror of battle without exploiting the gore and giving the soldiers opportunities for heroism in the way they protect each other but at the same time the film refuses to indulge jingoistic moments. Rather than using the usual trumpets or drum marches often associated with the music of a war film, Hans Zimmer’s score rumbles and slides with the elegant cinematography; it is a mournful and even spiritual music bed that underlies the moral horror of the violence and the existential crises that the soldiers find themselves confronted with in the face of that horror.

What Doesn’t: Terrence Malick is a frustrating filmmaker for a lot of audiences. His films do not comply with traditional narrative storytelling; The Thin Red Line does not have a definitive protagonist or antagonist, nor does it have a clear objective or goal for them to come into conflict over. Instead, his films are much more like cinematic poetry, using the elements of film to create meaning in a lyrical way. While The Thin Red Line does this wonderfully, it is not a typical war film by any means and audiences ought to be aware of what they are in for.

DVD extras: None.

Bottom Line: Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line stands next to Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now among the great war films. It is a distinct achievement, an art film in a combat setting, and it is a beautiful mediation on war, meaning, and morality.

Episode: #264 (November 8, 2009)