Volume 92, Issue 62

Tuesday, January 19, 1999


Thin Red misses finish line

Gilbert and Sullivan triumphs at Talbot

Thin Red misses finish line

Photo by Merle W. Wallace

By Beau Levitt
Gazette Writer

In the age of the $175 million Hollywood blockbuster with a cinematic IQ of 75, it is difficult to fault a film for being too intelligent for its own good. However, this is precisely the problem with The Thin Red Line.

Terrence Malick, who hasn't directed a movie since 1978's Days of Heaven, has crafted an extremely disjointed film. Although it contains sections of extreme power and beauty, it is also needlessly long and often more laughably pretentious than bad teenage poetry.

Adapted for the screen by Malick from a novel by James Jones, The Thin Red Line documents the American invasion of Guadalcanal in 1942, from the perspective of an infantry attempting to take a strategically important hill. This is the extent of the film's plot. There are a number of minor subplots, but the desultory manner in which Malick handles them discourages the viewer from investing too much energy or emotion in trying to follow them. Characters come, go, leave and die, resulting in more loose ends than a sweater knitted by a drunk.

Despite its flaws, there are some commending aspects to the film. The ensemble acting is uniformly excellent, with Nick Nolte and Elias Koteas standing out among an impressive cast. Unfortunately, most of the actors are saddled with incomplete roles, stereotypical characters or weak dialogue. John Toll's cinematography is absolutely awe-inspiring and Malick proves himself a master of powerful, haunting images.

The battle scenes are incredibly well done. Rather than shocking the viewer with excessive scenes of carnage, the suspense and fear within The Thin Red Line is borne largely out of the ever present potential for violence and death. The film is almost an hour long before the troops meet any Japanese resistance and by that point the tension is almost unbearable, due in part to the effective use of natural sound and an eerie score by Hans Zimmer.

The downfall of The Thin Red Line surfaces in the scenes where Malick attempts to make tired points regarding the absurdity of war and the arbitrary manner in which death occurs. After and sometimes during every battle scene, the survivors of the battle stare off into infinity and drearily pontificate about deep issues in absolutely cringe-inducing voice-overs. These are the most articulate GIs in cinema's history – a platoon of PhDs.

The Thin Red Line can best be classified as a intermittently commendable failure. Malick obviously has more talent and ambition than most living directors, but the film utterly fails to say anything new about the insanity of war. Still, moments of brilliance manage to shine through and a lot of thought obviously went into the movie's production, which can't be said about too many films in the profit-driven '90s.

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Copyright The Gazette 1999