Don't get too close to 'The Thin Red Line'
January 13, 1999
IMDB Page: Thin Red Line, The (1998): 170 minutes
My Rating: 2 out of 10
Note: I saw what might have been a modified version of this film specifically made for test audiences; we were given questionnaires to gauge our reactions to the film (a first for me). Maybe the distributed version is different from what I saw, but probably not very different since it was only a week before the movie's nationwide release.
So anyway, if you see something in it that contradicts what I say here...count yourself lucky. You're probably seeing a better film than I did.
I include no major spoilers here. Read without fear, even if you're planning on seeing it.
There's sometimes a very thin line (I know, I know...) between a profound masterpiece and pretentious, obscure nonsense. It doesn't necessarily take much to make the difference; it can be that it's too often unclear what's going on, or that there are too many extra scenes that add nothing to the film, or that there is no sympathetic character to latch on to, or that the characters all blend into each other after a while, or...
But at some point in a too-confusing film, you stop thinking "I don't get it yet, so I must just be dense" and conclude "This filmmaker really isn't that good at telling a story". About two hours into this film I gave up trying to decipher it. I recommend you save yourself the trouble; this movie isn't even worth the money to rent it.
Clothes, meet Emperor:
I was hoping no one would call this film a masterpiece. I really was. But Gene Siskel went ahead and did, and I hear that a number of other critics are raving about it as well:
Siskel's best movies of 1998 [Metromix]
#2 [of the year] ... the finest contemporary war film I've seen ... as compelling as the expertly staged combat sequences is the revelation by the soldiers, through narration, of their fears and the wisdom of the orders of their commander (Nick Nolte) ... There so many indelible images in "The Thin Red Line" that it almost defines what movie making is about.
With such a glowing recommendation from a reputable professional, how can I possibly pan this movie? Easy: It just doesn't play fair with the ordinary audience. My guess is, Mr. Siskel already knew enough about what he should expect from the film when he saw it (from industry buzz, press releases and such) that everything fit into place quite nicely and the author's Big Thoughts came right on through.
Me, I only knew this was a war film set in WWII with Sean Penn and George Clooney. I'd never even seen the trailer. With that little preparation going in (which won't be that uncommon, I think), this film is a painfully long exercise in obscurity, frustration and gorgeous but pointless cinematography.
(There's a paradox here: if you go in expecting a long, obscure, frustrating film, you may be pleasantly surprised by its occasional high-quality bits, and thus be able to enjoy it much more than someone going in unprepared and unsuspecting. This happened to me with 'Prince of Egypt'; the reviews I had read weren't very kind, but I found the movie to be much better than I had been led to believe since I had been inoculated against its more glaring failings.)
Good things about the movie:
Nice pictures. Lots and lots of nice island and nature pictures. Nearly 3 hours' worth, even. "Indelible images", though? Nah.
In an interesting (and according to some reviewers, intentional) reversal for a war movie, the Japanese soldiers are all extremely visually distinct from each other while the Americans are pretty much all generic white dudes (speaking as a generic white dude myself). That was kind of refreshing.
There were in fact a fair number of really outstanding scenes (such as the lone island native crossing past a line of soldiers, completely ignoring them), they were just spread very far apart. If some of the dross had been edited out, I'd have been much happier with the film or possibly even thought it was Important and Profound like I'm supposed to.
Bad things about the movie:
The movie takes waaaaay too long to communicate the answers to some basic questions one has about any story:
When? Where? I would have appreciated a simple graphic near the beginning, saying: "November 1942. Guadalcanal." That would have told me a lot - primarily that the contextless scene at the beginning is not a 'later' scene that we were going to be flashing back from, which was my first instinct.
Who is the movie about? (A: Lots and lots of soldiers, or no one in particular, depending on how you look at it) Who is the man we spend the first 10 minutes with? (A: His name is Witt, but that isn't clear till much later. He's an American private.) Is he the main character? (A: no) Why is he frolicking with non-army folks for many, many minutes at the beginning? (A: He's AWOL)
If Witt is not the main character, who is? His entire Company (or at least that's what the press materials say), and that's pretty unusual. In fact, it's so non-standard I'd say it's worth calling the audience's attention to early on. Why, at the beginning of the film someone could have said (or displayed on the screen) something as simple as, say, "This is the story of Charlie Company" and it would have removed a great deal of the ambiguity and frustration I experienced while trying to figure out who to track out of the dozen or so "main" characters.
Lots of the dialogue could have been replaced with insensible grunts with no one the wiser; much of it is hard to understand because it's too quiet, or mumbled, or the music's too loud. Great war realism there, I suppose.
At no point does anyone say anything about a Thin Red Line. Nor is a mention of it posted on screen. Um...it's the title? Shouldn't it come up in the movie somewhere? Somehow?
I just saw an HBO 'Making of The Thin Red Line' special (after seeing the film), and they posted on the screen at one point the following: "There's only a thin red line between the sane and the mad." Is this the source of the title? Who said it? And why wasn't that quote in the film?
I shouldn't have to see a 'Making of...' special to get bits that are integral to a film.
There's a metric ton of broken-up, drawn-out Pseudo-Meaningful Stuff being dictated over various scenes. Who's doing the narrating? Sometimes it's clearly The First Dude We Saw (Whose Name We Didn't Find Out Until Much, Much Later), and sometimes it's clearly Nick Nolte, but much of the time it's darned unclear, with few visual cues to assist. (Hey wait, maybe it's supposed to be that way, where, like, it really could be any of them philosophizing, because they're, y'know, so alike ... Bah. It's sloppy.)
There are often biiiiig pauses in between the narrated lines too, so we're simultaneously being distracted by the next "indelible images" and will have more trouble following the already-tenuous narrative thread when whoever-it-is deigns to pick it up again.
It comes off as slow, apoetic babbling after a while.
Nick Nolte gets the most opportunities to show off, and he gives a good performance. He's probably the best-defined character in the movie, though it's not a very likable character IMHO.
George Clooney is in this film for literally a couple of minutes. Out of 170. And it's as a very minor character. How 'bout that?
Clooney's name comes up a lot in the mentions I've seen of the film. Don't buy into it -- go for popcorn & you'll miss him (tip: he's near the end). It seems a little dishonest to list him as a headliner, even if his "star-power" requires it. John Travolta has just about as much screen time, and I don't see his name plastered everywhere the film is mentioned.
Woody Harrelson does a good job giving his character a lot of personality as well, but again, I have little reason to like him.
Sean Penn's character has an interesting development arc, and he pulls it off pretty well. Still, not a whole lot of screen time for him either.
John Cusack's character - What's his background? Why does he do the things he does? What are his problems with how Nolte's character is treating him? He's very enigmatic; but there's such a thing as too much ... enigmatude(? :). It's not Cusack's fault, though; he does well with what he was given.
James Caviezel (Witt), Ben Chaplin (Bell), and Elias Koteas (Staros) have their moments, but what I remember most about them is the impenetrable blankness of their faces most of the time. Maybe that's what they were supposed to do.
No Prerequisites, Please
I really don't mind 'difficult narrative' films if they're fair to the audience; I could follow 'The Usual Suspects', '12 Monkeys' and 'Pulp Fiction' quite well without advance preparation, thank you, and I'm plenty entertained by 'Brazil'.
Long films don't bother me either, if there's a point to the length. I just didn't see one here.
In another medium, Frank Miller's 'Batman: Year One' comic book is a masterful example of the technique Malick sometimes seems to be trying for, namely: include barely enough information to understand what's going on and leave out any other material, making for a choppy story but still providing just enough detail and exposition to be clear if you're really paying attention.
However, that's generally a good approach for a dense, short story, not for something extraordinarily long and expansive like this film. Malick's mistake (IMO) is his inclusion of so much extraneous material that is irrelevant to the narrative (such as it is). If there was time for all this other stuff he threw in, why wasn't there time to give the audience a clearer picture of what exactly was happening?
Had I seen the HBO 'Making of...' short beforehand, I'm certain that I would have enjoyed the movie much more having had the additional preparation. But (and I'm expressing a normative opinion here, not attempting to state Truth) the enjoyment of a movie shouldn't depend on how much of the advance press and advance toadying you've digested. One should be able to walk into a film and be able to understand/follow most of it without a whole lot of pre-education needed - put in software terms, the interface should be discoverable without a manual. This wasn't.
See it anyway...?
Hey, maybe I've provided enough information, warnings and inoculations here for you to go see it and understand it fine and enjoy the heck out of it anyway. But as you go, and as you marvel at the Intense Profoundness of it, think about how decipherable the picture would have been without any advance knowledge at all.
You know, I could maybe even have forgiven all the movie's other failings if it hadn't been for the oppressive length of the film.
I might even go so far as to say there could be a very good film in there somewhere, it's just spread too thin and edited too poorly: 170 minutes is a long, long time when there's so little to keep your attention.
Trimming it to two hours could have made a world of difference.
So if you see it, go prepared: bring a book.
-- Steve Bogart, firstname.lastname@example.org