Absence of Malick
A new DVD of The Thin Red Line suggests Terrence Malick is as much a mystery to his actors and crew as he is to us.
Even before it arrived in theaters at the end of 1998, the World War II drama The Thin Red Line was a film defined by unexplained absences. Its director, Terrence Malick, had made two of the most rapturously regarded movies of the ’70s, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), and then vanished from the filmmaking grid. His reappearance after 20 years was an ecstatic, near-miraculous event in the church of cinema, but it left many a missing person in its wake. Well-known actors such as Viggo Mortensen, Mickey Rourke, and Bill Pullman did scenes for The Thin Red Line on location in Australia but went MIA in the finished three-hour print. Billy Bob Thornton’s narration was likewise scrapped. Adrien Brody, who shot in Australia for three grueling months, brought his parents to an early screening to discover that his leading role had been whittled down to a single line of dialogue. George Clooney, who featured prominently in ads for the film, is on-screen for all of 60 seconds.
We expect star turns from our big movies, but The Thin Red Line (loosely adapted from James Jones’ 1962 novel and reaching theaters the same year as Saving Private Ryan) won both praise and scorn for its serene lack of interest in elements of the prestige studio picture. A plot, for instance: The film’s stunningly tense and kinetic middle hour traces a dangerously dehydrated U.S. Army company’s attempt to seize a Japanese stronghold during the Battle of Guadalcanal, but much of the rest of the action is dreamy, drifty, interior. The beatific Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) goes AWOL in an Eden of singing, swimming Melanesian villagers. Pvt. (Ben Chaplin) takes a walk, thinks of his wife, stares up at trees. Shots of sun-dappled leaves, grass, birds, and the occasional crocodile get more screen time than John Cusack and Woody Harrelson combined—as critic J. Hoberman put it, the film “thrive[s] on the tension between horrible carnage and beautiful, indifferent ‘nature.’ ” Dialogue is often thin on the ground, supplanted by Hans Zimmer’s plangent score, the whispers of wind and water, and a rotating, often confounding current of hushed voiceovers. To wit: “Oh, my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes, look out at the things you’ve made.” What does that mean? And who said it? Perhaps only Malick knows for sure.
Jessica Winter is executive editor of newyorker.com and a former editor at Slate and Time. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Bookforum, The Believer, and many other publications. She lives with her family in Flatbush, Brooklyn.