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Days of Hell 

Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line

Wednesday, Dec 23 1998
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Photo by Merie W. Wallace

The Thin Red Line opens with the image of a crocodile slithering into the water and closes with a still life of a newly sprouted coconut tree on an otherwise empty beach — two images of the primeval connected by a slender narrative thread on which writer-director Terrence Malick dangles his lofty, maddeningly innocent ideas about life and death and man’s gift for self-destruction. There’s a war movie in between these images too, with a sprawling cast of the famous and soon-to-be-famous and a multiple-voiced narration that hangs over the film like a shroud. Some of the voices are bracingly tough, honest, the voices of real men in horrifyingly real circumstances; most of the voices, though, sound like the aerated musings of a man who talks through characters whose heads are filled with sawdust rather than ideas. Most, in other words, sound just like Terrence Malick.

After 20 years of making like J.D. Salinger — now you worship him, now you don’t — Malick has returned to film with a cosmic war movie. Based, though just barely, on James Jones’ monumental blood-and-guts novel about the American assault on Guadalcanal during World War II, The Thin Red Line has arrived with all the weight, solemnity and great expectations of a modern masterpiece. It’s a wretched burden for anyone to assume, but it’s especially wretched for Malick, who has chosen to unburden himself in a year that has also seen the release of Steven Spielberg’s putative war-movie masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan. The Thin Red Line is the more interesting movie — it’s better acted, better photographed and vastly more complex in its storytelling — but in comparison to Spielberg’s, it seems like a mess.

One of Spielberg’s great gifts is for reducing big ideas into packages so little they fit into your hand like a bag of popcorn; he has a genius for oversimplification. Malick has a thing for overkill. In his first film, Badlands (1973), a murderous-kids-on-the-run story inspired by Charles Starkweather and his teenage girlfriend, that overkill made sense. The fugitive lovers are so emotionally flat, emptied out, that in every scene the very air around them seems to grow thicker with significance (and horror); it’s as if the physical world itself were reacting to them, asserting its grandeur, and gravity, in the face of quotidian evil. There’s a gap between the world and the killers, just as there is a gap between the beauty of the film and the ugliness of its story. That’s part of what makes Badlands such a knockout: On his very first try, Malick had learned how to tell a story as much through his visual imagery as through his words.

What also made the movie exciting — makes it exciting still — is the filmmaker’s chilling prescience about two kids whose moral consciousness was supplanted by an inarticulate self-consciousness about their own pop mythological standing. Five years later, untethered to anything beyond its own rhythms, that inarticulate self-consciousness would grow quickly tiresome. Ponderously beautiful, and laminated with a faux-naive voice-over, Malick’s second film, Days of Heaven (1978), is an epic without point or purpose. The story is artful and artless: At the turn of the century, three workers arrive at a Texas farm, latch on to its prosperous owner and destroy him. The three are at once poor and ignorant of their own poverty, conditions Malick very nearly likens to a state of grace (rarely has fieldwork looked this enobling). When their biblical fall from this heaven does come, it isn’t because the farmer is exploiting the workers, but because one of the workers has grown tired of his lot in life: He doesn’t want to be poor anymore. So he plots against the farmer and ruins everything — the farm, the farmer, his family, himself.

If Malick hadn’t stopped making films after Days of Heaven, it’s unlikely that his films would have become so fetishized. But like James Dean, or Salinger, his reputation has been assured (and embalmed) by the brevity of his work, and by the simple fact that by not making a movie for 20 years he avoided the deadfalls suffered by his contemporaries: Unlike Scorsese, Coppola and Altman, Malick didn’t crash, because he never again attempted to fly. His legacy endured, most obviously in the hyper-aestheticized, virtuosic luster of Days of Heaven, in which every blade of grass seems lit from within, every cumulus scuds across the sky as if on cue and the creatures of the Earth look like National Geographic pinups. It’s a look that has become a Hollywood cliché, recognizable in films such as Legends of the Fall and The Horse Whisperer (in fact, Malick’s cinematographer on The Thin Red Line is John Toll, who shot Legends of the Fall for Ed Zwick). What no one seemed to notice is that by the time he’d made his second film, Malick had lost interest in the human factor. The characters in Days of Heaven aren’t people, they’re abstractions whose individuality is subordinated to how ravishing they look when silhouetted against a halcyon field. They are stuck in the film’s honeyed light like bugs in amber; for Malick, everything human — the goods times, the bad, the backbreaking work as well as the play — is as natural and immutable as the sun itself.

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