Stephen Gillespie’s review published on Letterboxd:
LB Friend Fest 2021 - 10/20 (Wider details here)
Dief is a recent encounter but is already a firm favourite.
I am, in film conversations - and I mean this as criticism - often the loudest person in the room. I value my opinion too much, I overstate it and I speak far more than I should. Really, I don't listen to others as much as I should.
I think about this a lot.
When Dief talks, I listen. Hell, I even take notes. I find myself often in circles where I know I can blag my way through things and put on a performative intelligence emboldened by a good vocabulary (and, of course, this is enabled by my privileged positioning... straight, white cis men, huh, we sure are a type). What I love though, is people who mean I can't do this. When I'm talking to Dief, I have to be on my toes. I have to think about what I'm saying and I can't just waffle verbosely. He challenges me, he makes me actually think. And I love this (though, I can also effortlessly talk to Dief and have fun. Also very important).
But, I'm doing it again. Making it all about me.
Dief is funny. Dief will watch a Guinea Pig movie with you (or 6) before giving you a scholarly breakdown of some international art film that even I have never heard of. He is very smart. But he is very empathetic and lifts others up more than he drowns them out. Fundamentally, people - especially me - should be more like him.
Why this film?
Dief knows more about war films than me. And he loves this film. And I did need to see it, really, it's a modern classic. And, let's be honest, he can write better about this film and, as I know for a fact, has written better about this film. So, just go find him and talk to him about it.
At its best, The Thin Red Line is a work of perhaps unparalleled brilliance. There are aspects in it that I have not seen done as well, and perhaps not even achieved, in anything else. It is a tour de force of filmmaking and visual storytelling, and of how to craft a narrative in a wartime setting that doesn't diminish the war itself - but never pushes too closely into indulgence or glorification.
The Thin Red Line is also a very frustrating movie and, at its worst, it is trite, reductionist, faux-philosophical and has a colonial (or imperialistic) lens. The film leans into a spiritual or theological mode, relegated mostly to one character, and these elements are - quite frankly - bad. What is more frustrating is that they are often an objectionable, or masturbatory, wrapping over something completely stunning.
This thin line between filmic success and failure comes to define the film. This is frustrating but, then, in an oddly meta way it is somewhat fascinating as this thin line between success and failure. The most perfect moments of the film, of which there are many, capture this as an emotional core. We have these brutal battle scenes - though the brutality is never gratuitous - that often end in what is, in war terms, a victory. However, every time this happens the resulting 'success' feels hollow, pyrrhic even. The loudness of war, captured by the superlative camera work that sticks close to the soldiers, creating tight spaces that evoke the actual claustrophobia of open combat - the feeling of being trapped and vulnerable (the limited sight line for the viewer perfectly conveying a limitation for the soldiers), is suddenly lost. When a battle ends - like with the peerless hilltop battle towards the middle of the film - there is just quiet.
The camera lingers but the editing cycles us through images, a montage of quietude with the silence evoking the temporary deafness after a large explosion. There is a sense of relief but not a sense of triumph. Nothing ever feels worth it, even if it had to be done at the time. It is a fantastic emotional achievement that really captures something about the nature of war. These moments of silence, or of stillness, are elongated. This gives the viewer time and creates a real sense of reflection. Rather than revelling in victory, the viewer is encouraged to think back to the chaos and hell that led to this. The curated shots of our survivors - and of the dead - make us cast out minds back. This hilltop battle is also the first time we see the enemy, really - face to face that is. Before this they were an unstoppable force, now they are tragic figures. They are emaciated, they are overwhelmed and they are frightened. The film layers on the sound of fury and war, then it pulls it away. What you are left with is a raw humanity, and a sense of reality, that is quite revelatory.
Here, the film speaks so much by saying nothing at all. All the best narrative work in this film is done visually. The mobility of the camera, as it glides along or constrains a view, is reminiscent of the war movies from the Soviets. This is an American picture - though it produced in part by a Japanese company - but it has, in its best parts, a filmic sensibility closer to Sheptiko, Kalatozov or Bondarchuk. The way the film captures elements around war, preserves a sense of beauty but also instils the relevant harshness - and really conveys how the natural landscape is another opposing force in the war - feels reminiscent of The Ascent. The camera work and composition could be in The Cranes are Flying and the orchestration of the battle scenes is the most impressive thing I have seen outside of the third instalment of War and Peace.
This comes from Malick's approach, in which he accrued so much footage that he could find the film's narrative in the edit. However, not communicating this well enough to his actors was exploitative of them and their performances. This approach, though, requires every character to be able to be a main character, thus meaning characterisation has to be stellar. Every character here feels like a person - even if their dialogue isn't always great - and the film does the most phenomenal job of presenting human stories, fundamentally about people, in which these characters never take over the film. In the end, there is no lead, no real protagonist. You feel like the camera could go anywhere at any point and find the film there, that's how good a job it does of establishing geographical space, different personalities and of wider storytelling. Again, this is links back to War and Peace Part 3, where the scale of the battle makes it feel like it exists far beyond the silver screen's edge. A depiction of war that does not feel like artifice.
But The Thin Red Line does this while keeping intimacy and character at the forefront. This is a story of an army, and it feels like the story of all of them. It is able to switch between them effortlessly and everything is set up brilliantly so as to facilitate this. At every minute you think all of the film is happening, that every character is doing something, it is just that you can only be in one place at a time. This also captures something about the overwhelming nature of war.
Alas, now we get to the problem, the failure that is a thin line's width away from this triumphant success. The film starts with beautiful footage of the place about to defined by war - a war not even fought by its people or for its people. A nation becomes a stage for an external conflict, and the film sells this brutal fact very well. But we start with tranquility, an important place to start. We are establishing that something will be lost, and that war is done to a land not just to soldiers. Yet, we see this via the lens of an American soldier. We also have his narration over it and in this narration Malick pushes towards the spiritual.
There is this constant push back to some kind of theological or spiritual philosophy and it all rings very false. The actual land, with its own culture, is used as a background - like a landscape painting - to brand a Western philosophy onto. Our narrator talks of a paradise in the terms of a heaven, that there is a better world and it is to do with the soul and whatever. This seems crass, an exploitative use of an actual idyllic location to push a very divergent, or specific, worldview. It also does not fit with the war content: it is the most overwritten, irritating faux-philosophy that keeps the eyes rolling. And it keeps pushing into the film.
Malick, in these parts, falls into certain Malickisms that are the reason his works so rarely resonate with me. His editing style works so well for battle, as that context is so distinct from his usual content, but it
is just indulgent outside of this. The way we cut from lingering image to image, with a soaring score cutting over wider sound - and the way we focus on close, intimate and angelically lit imagery - just feels trite. It is just reaching so hard for forced spirituality and it does feel exploitative. Footage representing the actual residents of an actual land is used, fundamentally, as poetic devices for Malick's filmmaking.
This horrible approach returns with the one 'proper' female character (proper is an overstatement and the film would be better without her). We flash over, at points, to a soldier's wife left at home. The filmmaking here goes into stylistic overdrive. It is all intimate closeups and dynamic camera movements, and warm light. The camera even goes upside down at points, so excited is it by shooting this woman. And this is where it is creepy. This woman is so objectified by Malick's lens and craft, she exists more like the angelic ideal of a woman than anything else. And, yes, this does convey a subjective view from the character - it represents his deified view in his head - but it does not belong in this film. The arc of this story is interesting, but only independently interesting. It does a good thing but a thing that should be in a different film. As, eventually, it wants you to feel very sad about this but you've just felt sad about atrocities and it's hard to suddenly care about relationship drama.
So, ultimately, this is a film at war with itself. The thin red line marking out territory keeps changing as the forces of banality, empty philosophy and spirituality overtake what could have been one of the finest films ever made. Again, when it is good, this is untouchable but the dips in quality are severe. It is not that it is inconsistent, it is that the film suddenly becomes a bad movie. I want these parts cut out, but then I don't want the film to be shorter. It gains so much from its length in the room it gives to the viewer - but it invades that room with voiceovers that all need to be removed. So, Malick, I know you have so much more footage of the good stuff: repopulate the film with that and cut out the nonsense. The cuts to nature, symbolically chosen, when the film is conveying wartime and conflict, they are superb. When the film instead cuts to the symbolic bird of adultery - this bird has flown, get it? - I want to ban Malick from filmmaking.
In the end, this is a masterpiece with reservations. It is a masterpiece that lessens itself consistently. It is a profound masterpiece that is also full of needless digressions and banality. But, it is still a masterpiece.