Ideally, films work on multiple levels. There is the ostensible plot of the film, and there are layers of subtext and themes. Terrence Malick is a director who doesn’t seem too invested in all that plot business. His films are abstract and conceptual.

This isn’t to say that his films have no continuity at all. There are reoccurring characters—kind of. Still, sometimes a new character will appear in the closing minutes of the film to deliver a monologue, or a character that seemed important at the beginning of the film inexplicably vanishes and is never mentioned again. That is because the intrinsic quality of any one character is nonexistent. Character names aren’t even a priority. When you see Brad Pitt on screen, you never know him nominally as anything other than the Brad Pitt character.

But that is the point. Humanity is not a collection of billions upon billions of people. Humanity is one. We are one. And we are no different than the sun or the ocean. We are energy. This is the kind of philosophy that dominates his work, and what ultimately seems to be his principal motivation for making movies: to serve as a vehicle for his ideology. That being said, he delivers that ideology is a really interesting and authentic way. He is an auteur in the truest sense.

 

I recently just watched Malick’s 1998 motion picture, The Thin Red Line. During the first scene something jarring occurred: the patented Terrence Malick voiceover. “Why does nature contend with itself?” this voice asked pensively.

I was in utter consternation.

About a month prior I had watched Malick’s The Tree of Life and thought it was a revelation. It was drastically different from any film I’ve ever seen. The movement of the film was so stream of consciousness and fluid; the visuals—conveying more content than the dialogue—were masterful, accentuated by a gorgeous cinematography centered on cool greens and blues.

However, there is an issue. The Tree of Life is punctuated with voiceovers that are nearly identical to those of The Thin Red Line[1] The same questions (concerning the enigmatic nature of both God [2] and love), which establish the philosophical ponderings and thus contextualize the beautiful imagery, were being posed. The only thing that has been altered is the setting.

So as I’m watching the opening minutes of The Thin Red Line, I am retrospectively reevaluating my views on a film I initially thought was extraordinary, because there isn’t much progression here; he is just finding a better niche (that being The Tree of Life) to dispense the same treatment.

You know how certain bands repeat themselves musically? AC/DC is one of those bands that come to mind. I like AC/DC. I think Highway to Hell is an awesome record. That being said, I haven’t even a semblance of interest in any of the new Wal-Mart-licensed music they put out. This isn’t because it’s necessarily bad. In theory, I don’t see why anything should preclude AC/DC from writing the best music of their career. But at this point, the overwhelming amount of A Dorian riffs in their catalogue has diminished their emotive effect for me.

Who are you, Terrence Malick? Where did you come from? Are you like me? Can one piece of art truly serve as a prototype for another? And if yes, at what point does the artistic idea become derivative and start detracting from its value, regardless of the execution?

The Thin Red Line is about an outfit of soldiers in World War II and how they reconcile with the inequities of war. Malick distills one’s disposition in this turbulent juncture from their relationship with God. The conflict, as Malick appears to see it, is that god is complex. God doesn’t reveal himself to us and that can be maddening. The people who get frustrated and doubt the existence of god end up emotionally numb, or else cynical and isolated. They’re bitter and selfish. They foment discord. They start wars. The people who accept God live in harmony with the rest of the world. They do not cling to their earthly possessions; they share with the rest of humanity. They live in peace with nature and believe in eternal salvation.  

At first, I abhorred The Thin Red Line. It seemed completely incoherent. I stole a glance at my clock and withered resignedly: I still had 2 hours left. But then curiously, I thought it wasn’t so bad. Actually, this is sort of OK. Nay, this is good, bordering on great. Nope it’s bad. But wait…

It is at times vexing and at times unspeakably transcendent. Sometimes I audibly snicker at these voiceovers that are intended to be profound [3], which is a problem, and sometimes I find these sequences riveting. It uses many of the same devices that attend The Tree of Life (the transcendent part) but within the construct of this war film, the divergent cuts and voiceovers aren’t as apt and are sometimes disjointed (the vexing part.)

I suppose the main difference between the two films is the action sequences that comprise The Thin Red Line. They are slightly marred by the fact that I have no attachment to an individual character, yet they remain incredibly captivating. I do however think that Malick’s cinematography here, while fitting in The Tree of Life, is too pristine to characterize the grittiness of war.

I ultimately enjoyed The Thin Red Line. At 171 minutes, it’s bloated, but once you make it past the first hour, the movie is very arresting. Yet part of me feels gypped that Malick is basically making the same film over and over again (excluding Badlands and Days of Heaven.) It was great to see his vision fully realized in The Tree of Life, but how many two and a half hour films does he expect us to patiently sit through before we lose interest? Viewed within his oeuvre that is what The Thin Red Line felt like: a practice run to iron out all of the kinks.

But even with its flaws it is still a fascinating film experience, the kind of which you can only get from Terrence Malick. 

 


[1] The Thin Red Line is the first instance in which Malick deploys this specific voiceover style. Henceforth, it has been prevalent in all of his work including his interim film, The New World (2005.) I haven’t watched his latest release, To The Wonder, so I can’t personally attest to that, but all of the press I’ve read on that movie sounds much the same.

[2] You may think that this would be problematic for people like me, who are atheists, but I did not have a problem with it.

[3] Example: “Be with me now. We together. One being. Flow together like water. ‘Till I can’t tell you from me. I drink you. Now. Now. Love. Where does it come from? Who lit this flame in us? No war can put it out, conquer it. I was a prisoner. You set me free.”