Original Film Review From December, 1998
Celebrated filmmaker Terrence Malick returns to filmmaking from a 20 year absence with this visually, emotionally and poetically outstanding film about the Guadalcanal conflict of World War 2. It's with ill thought that I feel "The Thin Red Line" will likely be instantly stood up against Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan", when, in fact, the two films, in my humble opinion, couldn't be farther apart. Where "Saving Private Ryan" was built for impact, it sometimes felt, with the exception of its opening sequence, a little bit Hollywood; although, of course, at such a young age, I can hardly claim to have an idea of the horror that war holds. A better way to compare the two films is the act of painting. Where I called the overall feel of "Saving Private Ryan" a painting of blood, terror and horror, Malick's "Line" is the act of painting itself. The film is a work of art that soars above the medium of film to almost a level of zen and meditation that has really never been seen in film. Where "Ryan" centered on making the characters be at the forefront of the work, "A Thin Red Line" takes the characters and almost paints the reality around them, brushstroke by brushstroke. Mood and environment and feeling is painted in with a careful, masterful touch.
The film centers around a company of soldiers fighting for survival in the Guadalcanal battle of World War II. The film itself attains an incredible, almost continual feel of doom; there is a terrifying feeling when the camera is in the grass, or moving through smoke, that, in essence, as a soldier says in the film, that there is no safe place. You have to keep moving because there is no place to hide. And more often than not, the enemy is just on the other side of the smoke.
For some reason, the film reminded me of Andrew Niccol's film "Gattaca" in the way that it used visuals as not a way of adding style to a film, but to almost tell a secondary story. I absolutely loved the visuals, the voiceovers, the nature in a "Thin Red Line", because, overall, it's grandly abstract, grandly experimental, and not all the answers are laid out for the viewer. The film itself is something that washes over you. The terrifying battle scenes are interrupted in a moment of silent thought by many of the characters; an almost trance-like stream of thought that, for one short moment, lifts them out of something that is unthinkable. There are many thoughts, words, lines from this film that stick with the viewer. It may not be the specific characters from this film that stay with you, but there are moments, pictures, thoughts, that will leave a strong impression on any viewer. The film's mood alone is far different from "Ryan"; far more somber and far more complex in emotion. What is quite responsible for this level of complexity and emotion is director Malick's screenplay, based on James Jones's novel. It may not create memorable characters like Ryan, but the fact that the film never focuses it's viewpoint on one specific character(like "Ryan"'s Hanks) makes it feel all the more real.
Of course, though, there are excellent performances here. Sean Penn plays Sgt. Welsh, a cynical, numb man who perfers to look at the truth of his surroundings rather than to try and lift his spirit with the hope that Pvt. Witt tries to find in the simple, natural life of a small village, before he's whisked from that life into battle. In an Oscar-worthy supporting performance, Ben Chaplin plays Pvt. Bell, a man who keeps hope alive in the memories of the time he has spent with his wife, and the thought that he will see her again, no matter how the war ends for him. Also quite excellent is Elias Koteas, who plays a Captain who can't bare to see the men of his group, who have become surrogate family, marched into what will be a certain suicide mission. Also excellent are Nick Nolte and John Cusack, as well as a cameo by John Travolta. George Clooney is on screen in a "Blink-and-you'll-miss-it" cameo as well. Thankfully, these cameos never become distracting.
John Toll's cinematography is also deserving of award and recognition, capturing the beauty and the terror of the battle. There are moments that attain an almost surreal level of terror viewing it in the way that there literally seems to be no safe place; there is also a lack of point-of-view in some of the battle scenes that is effective in the way that we are not tied to a character, but feel that the camera, or our point of view, is almost a character in itself. There is also some excellent use of handheld camera.
There are two battles going on and they are both looked at with a bold, striking vision. What is so amazing about the film is how it's able to structure such a deep, emotional battle inside the men and their toxic mix of fear, emotion and sadness; Malick expertly and seamlessly builds the internal conflicts into the battles themselves. Overall, though, "The Thin Red Line" is more of a work of art like a painting than a film; the fact that it works such a compelling story into this painting makes it all the more incredible.
I'm uneasy about the reaction that mainstream audiences will have with this picture; I think that it's a more complex, more meditative look at War than Spielberg's "Ryan" was, and to be honest, I simply liked this film more. "Ryan" is an outstanding film on it's own, but it just doesn't have the depth and complexity that I think Malick has achieved with this film. Although "A Thin Red Line" doesn't have the kind of scene that "Ryan" had with its incredible opening, it sustains impact with consistent and powerful scenes of battle. I hope that audiences find this film when it goes into exclusive engagements, then a wider release. I hope that audiences can be patient with this film, because, it needs patience, understanding, and I hope that they take the time to see the emotional and complex feelings that lie underneath the film's exterior. It's a film of the very highest quality and I hope that others can find it as thought-provoking and enjoyable as I did.
VIDEO: Sometimes Fox rules, sometimes they don't. Recently, they have done wonders for their release of Patton, but then proceed to not put forth that same effort for many of their other new releases. It's also wonderful that they have decided to go back to presenting their movies in anamorphic widescreen. Not only has it done wonders for the thirty year old "Patton", but it has also brought this film, which I consider to be one of my favorites of all time, to home video at a level of visual beauty that, amazingly, is able to equal the stunning results that Dreamworks was able to attain with their edition of Saving Private Ryan.
The kind of quality that's attained here is thrilling, especially on a movie this beautiful. Images are sharp, smooth and extremely film-like, with very strong detail apparent. There are frequent scenes that look so well-defined, they feel almost three-dimensional. Even the smoke-filled scenes are smooth and clear, with no problems at all. The colors of the jungle are vivid and goregous; all of the greens of the plants and trees look fantastic here. There are actually no flaws or problems to speak of- there are no instances of shimmering or pixelization at all, and the print used is absolutely clear of any problems. As I said before, sometimes Fox rules, sometimes they don't. They've really never before challenged the kind of quality that a few other studios have been putting out, though. With "The Thin Red Line", they have put one foot far forward and I sincerely hope that future editions of their DVDs can look this good.
SOUND: "The Thin Red Line" contains a bold, smooth and exciting sound mix that is very dynamic and absolutely wonderful. There are frequent and very effective use of the surrounds throughout the picture for a really enveloping experience that puts you right in the middle of the battles, with many moments that sound so real its scary. The battle scenes are just amazing- there is a definition to the scenes and a sense of space to these battles that is great. The voice-overs as well as the dialogue between characters sounds wonderful as well, with dialogue sounding absolutely natural and clear, with no problems at all. There is also some deep, solid bass throughout the picture, especially during some of the battle scenes. What I really loved about this film sound-wise was how it contrasted moments of near-silence with moments of total chaos and I have it say, it's represented really well here. It captures every detail of the jungle sounds with crystal clarity. Hans Zimmer's score, which is outstanding(I even bought the CD) really sounds expansive and enveloping here. In terms of audio, "The Thin Red Line" is a real winner.
MENUS: Pretty basic, with just film themed art throughout; no animation.
EXTRAS:: Some people may not consider the extra that this disc holds too much of a great feature, but I have to say that I really loved it. The disc has 11 Melanesian songs that play one after another. I found this music, which was featured in the film, to be remarkably beautiful, and to have this feature where these 11 songs play one after another is something that I will be listening to often. Although I would have liked to have seen more (like, the trailer, at least?), I still really was very happy with how Fox set up these songs in this section. The songs sound great as well; crystal clear throughout.
Final Thoughts: Although a lot of people didn't like "The Thin Red Line", over time it's really become one of my favorite movies and I think it's simply an outstanding picture. Although $34.98 retail price is a little on the expensive side, the movie itself and the quality of the presentation in terms of audio and video still lead me to recommend this disc highly. I loved the songs included, as well. Two "bests" for Fox in one week: a their best work ever on an older picture for "Patton" and their best work ever on a new release for "The Thin Red Line".