Ter­rence Mal­ick’s Guadal­canal diary

1998’s lyrical ‘The Thin Red Line’ marked the reclu­sive filmmaker’s re­turn.

Los Angeles Times - - Movies - Den­nis Lim cal­en­dar@latimes.com

It’s easy to see why Ter­rence Mal­ick, more than just about any work­ing Amer­i­can filmmaker, in­spires a rev­er­ence bor­der­ing on the cultish. There’s the scarcity of out­put (four fea­tures in nearly four decades), the Pyn­chonesque ret­i­cence (no in­ter­views and al­most no pub­lic ap­pear­ances) and above all the over­whelm­ing na­ture of his films, which are de­fined by their sen­sory in­ten­sity and a sense of spir­i­tual quest­ing.

The Mal­ick faith­ful have been abuzz lately: His newly com­pleted “Tree of Life” has been acquired for a 2011 re­lease, and he is due to start shoot­ing an­other film this fall. In the mean­time, Mal­ick’s 1998 come­back, “The Thin Red Line,” ar­rives in stan­dard-def­i­ni­tion and Blu-ray DVD edi­tions from the Cri­te­rion Col­lec­tion this week. A for­mer jour­nal­ist with a phi­los­o­phy de­gree, Mal­ick be­gan his di­rect­ing ca­reer with two of the defin­ing Amer­i­can movies of the 1970s, “Bad­lands” (1973) and “Days of Heaven” (1978). Then he took a 20-year break, dur­ing which there were whis­pers of a few abortive projects but for the most part to­tal si­lence.

He re­turned to a Hollywood very dif­fer­ent from the one he’d left, and it bog­gles the mind that, af­ter all that time away, Mal­ick was able to put stu­dio re­sources and an all-star cast in the ser­vice of a deeply per­sonal, prac­ti­cally non-nar­ra­tive film, a lyric poem as much as a war epic, the kind of movie the in­dus­try had long stopped fi­nanc­ing. Adapted from James Jones’ 1962 novel, which was in turn based on the author’s own com­bat ex­pe­ri­ences in World War II, “The Thin Red Line” fol­lows the at­tempts of an Amer­i­can Army unit to seize con­trol of Guadal­canal, a Ja­pane­se­held is­land in the South Pa­cific.

More than an hour of the film is de­voted to the sol­diers’ har­row­ing grad­ual ad­vance up a strate­gi­cally im­por­tant hill, fired on from un­seen Ja­panese troops. This bat­tle scene goes on for an eter­nity, and it cap­tures a state of trance­like dis­ori­en­ta­tion, with al­most all the men in the grip of fear or hys­te­ria. But Mal­ick also of­fers pierc­ing glimpses of rap­ture in the face of death. Through­out this grunt’s-eye reverie, he cuts away to a sol­dier’s sun­lit me­mory of his an­gelic wife and lingers on the light as it changes on the blades of grass un­du­lat­ing in the wind.

A few in­di­vid­u­als emerge from the en­sem­ble murk: Jim Caviezel’s philo­soph­i­cal mys­tic, Sean Penn’s prag­matic cynic, the blus­tery colonel (Nick Nolte) and the com­pas­sion­ate cap­tain (Elias Koteas) who clash on the bat­tle­field over the fate of their men. But for the most part, as fa­mous faces (Woody Har­rel­son, Ge­orge Clooney) come and go, and as the voiceover shifts from one char­ac­ter to an­other, the film leaves the im­pres­sion of a col­lec­tive hero.

The fur­ther the film bur­rows into the in­ner­most thoughts of these men, the more iso­lat­ing the ef­fect. Most pla­toon dra­mas em­pha­size com­rade­ship, but this most cos­mic and in­te­rior of war movies is fi­nally about the im­pos­si­bil­ity of es­cap­ing one’s own head.

“The Thin Red Line” takes to heart its open­ing men­tion of a “war in the heart of na­ture,” by which Mal­ick means both the nat­u­ral world and the na­ture of man. The movie takes shape as a rich net­work of op­pos­ing forces: fear of death and awe for life, the heady ab­strac­tion of its ideas and the near-hal­lu­ci­na­tory clar­ity of its sounds and im­ages(es­pe­cially ev­i­dent in the Blu-ray ver­sion).

The ex­tras in­clude 14 min­utes of out­takes, in­ter­views with sev­eral ac­tors and a com­men­tary track by pro­duc­tion de­signer Jack Fisk, pro­ducer Grant Hill and cin­e­matog­ra­pher John Toll (who was nom­i­nated for an Os­car for the film). Mal­ick, who su­per­vised the trans­fer, re­mains his usual in­vis­i­ble self, but the reclu­sive au­teur does of­fer one very apt bit of in­struc­tion. Af­ter the Play but­ton is hit, the fol­low­ing mes­sage pops up on the screen: “Ter­rence Mal­ick rec­om­mends that ‘The Thin Red Line’ be played loud.”

COM­BAT:

Merie W. Wal­lace

Nick Nolte plays a colonel who or­ders his troops to take a strate­gic hill.

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