It’s hard to describe The Thin Red Line, the return of Terrence Malick to directing after a 20-year absence, as anything but exquisitely beautiful, despite the fact that it largely traces the awful violence experienced and perpetuated by a band of American soldiers on the Pacific island of Guadalcanal during World War II. This is what Malick does: Juxtapose serenity and suffering in a lyrical, cinematic lament.
Since he did this in 1973’s Badlands and 1978’s Days of Heaven, his two previous films, that means The Thin Red Line doesn’t offer much of a thematic advance. Yet if you can forgive that – along with the painfully philosophical voiceover narration – the movie works as a visually audacious piece of meditative mourning. It’s as if the blasting guns and exploding grenades prompted an angel to float down among these warring humans and have a look around.
Much of The Thin Red Line is so gorgeous it feels as if it’s being seen through heavenly eyes – at least until fresh hell rips across the screen. At one point, we’re nearly lulled into a trance by a hillside of tall brush gently blowing in the wind. Then, without warning, bullets burst from out of the green, sent forth by an enemy lurking beneath the placid, grassy sea.
An extensive ensemble cast has been gathered – Sean Penn, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte, John Travolta, Jim Caviezel – but Malick’s directorial vision is the star. The Thin Red Line is a battle film as only he could make it – one of equal parts warfare and wistfulness.