The soldiers surge up the bright green hill, through pristine blades of tall, sunstruck grass. All the while, they are showered with gunfire, but no one can see where it’s coming from. Running a few yards, the men duck into the foliage, then run some more, and the camera runs with them – sweeping, in nervous waves, through the grass, penetrating it, without ever quite finding a place to rest.
Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” is an epic aestheticization of World War II, a movie at once bold and baffling, immediate and abstract. Set during the Battle of Guadalcanal, when the Americans, fighting for control of the Japanese-occupied island, turned the tide of the Pacific conflict, much as the invasion of Normandy heralded the victory in Europe, the movie is full of potent and disruptive images that imprint themselves on your retina; it’s also full of characters you forget the second they walk off screen. “The Thin Red Line” has moments of grim oracular power, but they’re buried in a blur of grandiloquent vagueness.
Malick, the eccentric New Hollywood legend (“Badlands,” “Days of Heaven”), now returning to filmmaking after a 20-year absence, wants to hypnotize you with his artistry, but instead he ends up bullying you. He has turned James Jones’ 1962 novel into a kind of Buddhist tone poem about the timeless spirit of war: men and their guns, their machines of violation, ripping the sacred heart out of “nature.” But isn’t nature itself a place of violence? One of the characters, the venomous Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), voices this view, and though the film doesn’t ultimately buy into it, I found myself weary, from the start, of the woozy-mystical philosophizing – of Malick’s elegiac portentousness. “The Thin Red Line” is full of mournful pensées spoken by the soldiers in voice-over, lines like “Maybe all men got one big soul that everybody’s a part of.” The poetry is visual as well. I’ve never seen a jungle-set war film that didn’t include a few moments of ironic beauty (rays of sun glinting through the trees and all that), but Malick, who is nothing if not a master of images, piles on the godly serenity: squirmy shellfish; a forest of swaying bamboo stalks; angelic Melanesian natives living in sublime peace with their surroundings. This is a war film made by a very somber flower child.
“The Thin Red Line” could, I think, turn out to be this season’s “Beloved,” a movie too paralyzingly high-minded to connect with audiences. To some, the film may make “Saving Private Ryan” look corny, but Spielberg’s movie is actually far tougher. It recognizes the complex truth that war, in all its ugliness, can’t just be a violation of nature if, in fact, it is being fought to save civilization. (In World War II, the violation of nature was Hitler.) Malick’s platitudinous woe is the real sentimentality.