The Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I have a very difficult relationship with Terrence Malik. On the one hand, the man is mad talented, and there is no denying the impact he has had in terms of his narratives and films. On the other, I personally find much of his content to be emotionally hollow and self-centered - an artist so desperately obsessed with his own navel gazing he overshadows any merit many of his films have.

Then it is with great joy that I exclaim to the heaven that The Thin Red Line is not only Malik's best film, but one of the best war films ever made. It is a stunning, riveting picture, one that has much to say while also delivering a harrowing, moving, and ultimately powerful film that does not compromise on it's hefty ambitions.

In World War II, Private Robert Witt (Jim Caviezel), an AWOL soldier, is picked up by a troop carrier with the members of C Company. Forced to join them, the company lands on the island of Guadalcanal in order to retake it from the Japanese, who are using it as a strategically placed base.

Malik smartly tells the story almost entirely from the perspective of Witt, with the occasional break to explore other characters. Through Witt, Malik explores the nature of war, the soul, and the Earth itself, all told masterfully through dreamlike flashback sequences along with a stunningly realized present day narrative. It's easily his best usage of his directorial style outside of Badlands, combining some truly jaw-dropping war sequences that rank among the best in film history.

With the company acting more as one character, the film posits that war is simply man's anger at itself - nature and man fighting internally over a battle that cannot be won. Why are they fighting? The answer is left purposefully vague, and while we see devastation, there a quiet calm over the proceedings, one where we are left to simply watch and look. Many of the scenes, in fact, are nothing but silence and waiting, as the soldiers desperately try to find and discover their own purpose.

Like all of Malik's work, it's gorgeous to look at from the start, and this doesn't just extend to the aforementioned battle scenes, which are simply stellar from start to finish. The shots of nature, the look of green, red, and blue throughout, the way the camera moves in and out of the grass and fields - the camera is almost always moving, and when it isn't it has something important to say, with emphasis on particular elements or characters. There is a lot to unpack by simply looking, as Malik is more focused on the emotions of soldiers rather then the simple act of war itself.

The mammoth cast is surprisingly mostly left on the backburner, with only a select few really getting time to shine. Sean Penn and Jim Caviezel are the clear leads here, and both do excellent work, but the real stars in terms of performances are Elias Koteas and Nick Nolte, whose subplots are as enthralling as the rest of the film itself. Smartly, Malik does not use his actors lightly. Instead, he chooses to have them scattered throughout, having them be all players in one company.

Hans Zimmer's sweeping score is one of his best. The symphony blares with strings, horns, and cymbals, only lowering for the briefest moments of reprise. It is a powerful score too, one that, on it's own, invokes majestic feelings of both melancholy and awakening - these men are fallen angels, brought to Earth for an unknown purpose, and when the score reaches it's crescendo, these men are sent back to heaven, albeit for the briefest of moments.

With it's stunning images of war and nature, Terrence Malik crafts his masterpiece with The Thin Red Line. Dreamlike, powerful, and visceral at the perfect moments, it never forgets the humanity at the soldier's cores, and it remains the pinnacle of his filmography for a reason. An astonishing film.

I give The Thin Red Line 5 stars out of 5.

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