Film: The Big Picture - Psychological warfare

THE THIN RED LINE (15) DIRECTOR: TERRENCE MALICK

STARRING: SEAN PENN, JIM CAVIEZEL, BEN CHAPLIN, NICK NOLTE, ELIAS KOTEAS 170 MINS

WHEN A film-maker disappears after tantalising the world with glimpses of an extraordinary talent, your curiosity is naturally piqued. When that film-maker re-emerges with his first movie in 20 years, curiosity by this time has become mingled with dread. Can the comeback match the pressure of expectation, or will genius have withered through neglect? In the case of Terrence Malick, whose reputation rests on two landmark movies, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), the stakes are as high as they come; you don't hope for a comeback - you hope for a world event.

The Thin Red Line is not that event. I emerged from it dazed and, days later, I'm still trying to gauge its impact. On the one hand it's profoundly strange and luminously beautiful; on the other, it's rambling, incoherent, perverse and defiantly insular. It is, unmistakably, the work of Terrence Malick, so let's be thankful for that.

Based on the novel by James Jones, it concerns an army rifle company that fights its way to a key victory over Japanese forces at Guadalcanal. But call it a movie about the Second World War and you'd be only half right. This is a long way from the visceral charge and moral purpose of Saving Private Ryan. Just compare the opening of Spielberg's film - a roaring maelstrom of gunfire and blood - with the sun-dappled fugue that begins The Thin Red Line. Two soldiers, who've gone AWOL from their company, sport with Melanesian natives amid paradisaic serenity; a pair of brilliantly coloured parrots stare beakily ahead, children swim beneath an aquamarine sea. We wait.

And we wait. Even when the company eventually disembarks on shore, the soldiers do not find a place rimmed with snipers or barbed wire; they have acres of jungle to hack through before they get a glimpse of the enemy. It's a full three-quarters-of-an-hour before a shot is fired, during which time Malick introduces us, obliquely and unsatisfactorily, to his cast of soldiers. Some senior officers are recognisable - Woody Harrelson, Sean Penn and John Savage - other ranks less so; the ones who make an early impression are Privates Bell (Ben Chaplin), Doll (Dash Mihok) and Witt (Jim Caviezel), whose faces you tend to seek out in the yawning absence of a centre. The film keeps proposing a major character before pulling away to focus on something else, leaving us none the wiser as to who the film is about. Just when you've decided it's a battle of wills between a warhorse lieutenant colonel (Nick Nolte) and a self-doubting captain (Elias Koteas) who refuses to sacrifice his men, along comes another officer (John Cusack) to dominate the film for the next 20 minutes before disappearing altogether. The movie is bookended by a pair of celebrity cameos - John Travolta and George Clooney - to no discernible purpose whatsoever. According to reports from the set, Malick shot so much film that he made himself an Everest to edit: major parts were whittled down to minor, or else cut completely. A lack of focus is everywhere felt.

Perhaps wise to the confusion, Malick has taken recourse to voice-overs, a device he also used in Badlands and Days of Heaven. Yet where the voice- over is traditionally deployed (and deplored) as a short cut to explanation and clarity, here it's an occasion for spacey, philosophical musing: "Love - where did it come from? Who lit this flame for us?" "If I don't meet you in this world, let me feel the lack" (a line that sounds more like Jimi Hendrix than James Jones). Nothing as prosaic as information is ever vouchsafed us. What's more, excepting Witt's Kentucky drawl, it's never certain which soldier's voice we're listening to. This could be Malick's intention, for despite their individual anonymity those voices do have an amazing cumulative power.

The film doesn't shrink from portraying the chaotic horror of combat, yet it's more interested in the numbness and fear and exhaustion of the minds who have to endure it; what else for a man to do but "make an island for himself"? In this regard, Ben Chaplin is granted the privilege of flashbacks to happier days back home with his wife, a mental refuge that somehow allows him to risk his life as the company inches its way towards the enemy's hilltop redoubt.

Triumphalism plays no part in this account. Even when the American troops seize control of an enemy village, Malick's camera lingers on the traumatised faces of the Japanese, emaciated and cowering piteously in bunkers, or howling in anguish as they cradle their dead. "This evil... what root did it grow from?" muses an inner voice. Thus we come to understand the point of the film's long passages of calm, the painterly shots of birds and wildlife - all that waiting. The Thin Red Line is only incidentally a story of an American-Japanese conflict; it's really an inquiry into what men must kill in themselves when they kill one another. The flipside of this high-minded sensibility is a lofty narrative vagueness. Hardly any of the scenes link up or comment on one other. As in Ryan, there is a heroic instance of self-sacrifice, yet the strategic worth of that sacrifice is not made clear. It's infuriatingly characteristic of the way Malick's poetic style gestures at drama yet seldom deigns to immerse itself in the particulars.

It's hard to know how the movie will survive in the memory beyond a cluster of striking images - a fleck of blood on a blade of grass, late- afternoon sunlight over a hill, the scenes of native innocence in the prologue - and a performance of mysterious grace from the newcomer Jim Caviezel. Malick is entranced by the human face, and Caviezel fully repays the attention; his tenderness and self-possession haunt the film long before it's finished. With its woozy poetic voice-overs and underdeveloped characters, The Thin Red Line is no crowd-pleaser; you can see why it will be damned by some as pretentious and perplexing. Yet I couldn't help admiring it, for its ambition, for its troubling, hypnotic spell and, ultimately, for its refusal to play the Hollywood game. Terrence Malick has made something no one else has ever dared: an introspective war movie.

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