Review: 'The Thin Red Line' a beautiful bomb
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From Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- Terrence Malick has now made 2.4 incredible movies. "The Thin Red Line," the critically-acclaimed Malick's highly-anticipated return to film making after a self-imposed 20 year exile, is 40 percent fantastic and 60 percent as stupefyingly pretentious as any movie in recent memory. If you've ever wondered what the battle of Guadalcanal would've been like had the United States decided to attack the Japanese with a crack team of armed, second-rate poetry students rather than real soldiers, this is the movie for you.
"The Thin Red Line" may be a war movie on the surface, but Malick apparently set out to film nothing less than "Patrolling the Area for Godot." Absolutely nothing happens for excruciating lengths of time; you don't even see a proper Japanese soldier for more than an hour.
And you haven't lived until you've crawled into the portentously talkative skulls of Malick's grunts. They repeatedly pontificate -- even as shells burst around them -- about man's uneasy relationship with nature and God and all the other "deep" stuff that great artists apparently obsess over when they haven't been making movies for a couple of decades.
John Toll's cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, there are a couple of stunningly choreographed battle sequences, and a few members of the large cast (especially Sean Penn and Elias Koteas) have nice moments. But that wasn't enough to keep me from eventually throwing my hands in the air in dismay as the story pulled itself along like a gut-shot lieutenant inexorably staggering to The Great Unknowable ... all the while providing flowery narration for his own demise.
A lot of people in the audience when I watched it were openly groaning as Malick and his cast wandered the jungle, looking for a story. Too bad they never found one.
Stumbling on words
I was hugely disappointed by this turn of events. I've been a Malick fan for as long as I've been loving movies, and, like a lot of people, have been looking forward to this one in a big way. His previous films, 1973's "Badlands" and 1978's "Days of Heaven," always came this close to being too mannered and lyrical for their own good, but a really warped sense of humor saved them from collapsing under the weight of their nearly-arty self-consciousness.
It's odd that the voiceover is the main stumbling block here, because the most impressive thing about Malick's writing (until now) has always been his unique use of narration. The narrators of his previous films are always a little vague, a bit less knowing than the people sitting in the audience. Their inarticulate ramblings lend both movies a free-floating focus of attention that's sometimes amusing, but usually downright touching.
"Days of Heaven," for instance, is photographed on a mythic scale, but it's also the oddball reverie of a confused, uneducated little girl who's desperately trying to survive her backbreaking existence. No one had ever seen anything quite like it, and that's why Malick still has so many admirers after such a lengthy layoff. He teased us brilliantly, then clammed up.
Well, he's talking again, and you'll be wishing he wasn't before you're finished with "The Thin Red Line." (Or before "The Thin Red Line" is finished with you.) I've never read the James Jones novel that the story is based on, but I'm willing to bet that it contains something meatier than scores of references to the fact that human beings, for all their self-importance, are just another part of nature, and nature is full of predators. There's so many extraneous shots of birds, alligators, bats, and monkeys in this movie, you'd think it was co-directed by Marlon Perkins.
When things suddenly kick into gear and a masterfully executed battle takes place, you immediately forget how long it took Malick to get you there. But, when the dust settles, he climbs right back into an extended "What is the Meaning of War?" 12th-grade essay competition. I felt like shouting out letter grades after some of the voiceovers.
Characters barely introduced
It's almost pointless to describe the characters, since we're never properly introduced to any of them anyway, and they all sound exactly the same when they open their mouths. The huge cast marches all over Malick's lush landscape, appearing to be important for a few minutes, then evaporating into the mist as we peel off to look at all the pretty birds and snakes.
The most often-dangled characters are Nick Nolte as Lt. Col. Tall, a career soldier who's ready to sacrifice every one of his men for the opportunity to finally lead soldiers into battle; Elias Koteas (easily giving the best performance in the movie) as the captain who simply refuses to let Nolte kill everyone just for the hell of it; Sean Penn, very cool as the cynically pragmatic Sgt. Welsh; and Jim Caviezel as Witt, the sort of Christ-figure private that beatifically stares out at the carnage in every artsy war movie.
There are also pointless cameos by John Travolta and George Clooney (who literally appear for about 90 seconds each), Woody Harrelson accidentally blowing off his own foot with an errant grenade, and a tremendously exciting attack on a Japanese machine-gun nest that's led by none other than John Cusack, the All-American Boy.
I feel bad having to point out just how sophomoric a lot of this is because most of today's filmmakers display about one-tenth the ambition that Malick does. But good intentions and 20-year-old praise doesn't mean that a group of people don't eventually have to sit down and watch the damn thing when the director's done speechifying.
The stuff that works is every bit as amazing as anything in "Saving Private Ryan," but it's embarrassing to see someone try this hard while saying next to nothing, and saying it about 150 different times. If you're as taken with Malick's previous work as I am, you'd be a fool to pass up the chance to experience a little more of it. However, if you're in the mood for a coherent piece of film making, go out and rent "Badlands" again.
"The Thin Red Line," of course, has its moments of brutality (including a shot of a couple of hacked-apart soldiers), but it's got nothing on "Saving Private Ryan" in that department. There's some bad language, also of course, but long, ominous silences are the most annoying part. Rated R. 170 minutes, although the way Malick approaches the material, it could just as well have lasted anywhere from 45 minutes to 8 days.
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