Edited January 2016
A word on Terrence Malick, and not a terribly original word at that: the crux of the Malick state of mind, for at least its pre-Tree of Life existence, is fundamentally cinematic poetry, with any presumption of an artistically unmediated reality shot-through with an oneiric potency that nonetheless conjures Malick’s unique fascination with the vibrations of human being better than any more obviously “realistic” film could convey. Malick was introduced to the world through a high-minded treatise on the idea of an American New Wave film, releasing his debut, 1973’s Badlands, in a thick-on-the-ground decade of American grit and what many directors would call “realism”. The late ’60s and early ’70s had their Bonnies and their Clydes, their Bunches that were Wild, and even their Streets of indefatigable Meannness, and the consensus around those films was that they gallantly and brutally brought some fighting words for the Old Hollywood ways of geniality and safety. The general consensus is, in other words, that America got nasty in the ’70s, and specifically, that their films brought the “hard-won realism” in a way America never had before.
There is value to this position, but it is important to remember that realism is its own limit, and its own lie. Take Bonnie and Clyde for instance, a work that traffics in heavy romanticism as much as realism, and the same is true for The Wild Bunch. Furthermore, both of those films know that they are not realistic; instead, they thrive on a bitter feud between autumnal grime and Old Hollywood lush, using their similarities to the Old Hollywood style to expose certain limits to romanticism without actually indicting that romanticism. In other words, if Samuel Peckinpah has a word for Old Hollywood Westerns concerning how they fetishized violence and glossed over pain with a supposed “noble spirit”, he also loved what those Old Westerns brought to the table in terms of mythic, cinematic beauty. He learned from Ford, and learned well.
So “realism” was never truly the order of the day, but middlebrow filmgoers cart the word out like it is the Lord’s Work, as though the greatest thing any film could hope to accomplish is to be “realistic,” framed through a self-consciously “mature” idiom shaded in as “serious and gritty,” with all the other valences of everyday reality shorn away. Again, noble goals, but they are never really the full story. Which is where Terrence Malick came in, using Badlands as an opportunity to sell his Bonnie and Clyde myth not by exposing the teenage murderer-lovers on the run as brutal killers, but by exposing how Hollywood attempts to depict Bonnie and Clyde as deluded monsters still inevitably romanticized figures anyway. In lieu of fierce, venomous portrayals of sweat and flesh, Malick had Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek walk around stilted for 90 minutes, exposing them as pantomimes of Hollywood performances rather than real people. In lieu of sober fly-on-the-wall realism, he substituted wonderfully impressionistic and deeply romantic flowing imagery to expose, indeed, to over-expose the transcendental beauty of material reality rather than reject it or devour it with awards-baiting “grit”.
He was, simply put, exposing the Hollywood lie, saying essentially that any attempt to depict these two murderers as “real people” had to be filtered through the fictional lens of cinema. Rather than try to coat them in “realism”, he created an elaborate work of performance art to say something not about how cinema lies about reality, but about how cinema and fiction altogether creates reality. In Badlands, we learn something far more disconcerting than how Bonnie and Clyde were really despicable people and that Hollywood had been lying about them all along by galvanizing them with gilded movie magic. We learn, with Malick, how this gilded movie magic gets in the heart of people and subsumes their identities; we learn not that movies need to show us “the truth” of people, but that they never can, and that, even when they try, the “truth” in an age of pop culture might just be the fiction of movies itself. In other words, movies do not simply present stilted, “fake” images of real people, but they coerce people to become those fake images, to act as movies would want them to. And, in those rare moments where cinema trains its eye on the forgotten spaces of the world – the silent vibrations of being, the breaths of the wilderness, the divine uncertainty of existence – it evokes a poetic truth far more honest than cloistered “realism” ever could. It is for this reason that Malick was possibly the most exciting cinematic force to blaze through the 1970s, utilizing a style wholly in opposition to most American films being released at the time, and doing so with an insurrectionist bent that wished to put a stake through the heart of “filmic realism”.
It took a lot out of him. After the release of his second film, Days of Heaven, Malick waited a full twenty years before he decided to direct another film. Something was brewing, and something was stewing. Specifically, he was waiting for another supposed renaissance of “hard-hitting realism” in the cinematic world. He was waiting for the 1990s, essentially, and when they arrived, he took his time a little more, just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. In 1998 he took to the decade like a viper’s nest to a stray animal. Although, admittedly, Terrence Malick is just about the most ethereal, most slow-going viper’s nest in the history of ever.
His roaring return to the cinematic world, The Thin Red Line, is not Malick’s best film, or his most perfect, but it is, let us say, the best gateway to his vision. Being released at almost exactly the same time as Steven Spielberg’s war epic Saving Private Ryan, you could not hope for a more fitting juxtaposition if you spent those twenty years dreaming of it. Spielberg’s film is the quintessential Malick jumping-off point and antithesis, existing as it does in perfect contradiction with itself. Ryan is a work that purports to show us the “gritty side of war”, yet for the famed first act, it excites (we don’t need to bring up the famous Truffaut quote about the impossibility of an “anti-war film”, but Malick clearly took it to heart). Positioned as a companion piece to the stark, realistic brutality of Saving Private Ryan at the time (or, more aptly, Saving Private Ryan’s opening sequence, before it becomes Hollywood dross), The Thin Red Line is far closer to a rebuttal.
Boasting a certain roving, narrative-adjacent quality that evaporates any sense of clean protagonists not only in the face of a war that is wholly uninterested in individual characterization but in the name of a vision of cinema which aspires to other goals beyond hemmed-in, protagonist-centric storytelling, The Thin Red Line boasts an elegiac, pondering (not ponderous) essence that is entirely dissimilar to Spielberg’s audience-ready concoction of new-school grit and old-school gentility. Put more eloquently, while Saving Private Ryan hopes to shock and then save our souls, The Thin Red Line aspires to question them, to shroud them with knowing refrains to uncertain visions, and to shade them with a restless spirit by foregrounding our obvious disconnect from nature only to intimate the possibility of mental reunion.
While Spielberg throws us into the action with hand-held shots and hurtling camerawork from the ground-up, Malick vacillates between raising us above his diorama-like Pacific Rim WWII while depicting his characters like little action figures in the sand, like ants, and, conversely, quality joining them in the trenches without necessarily depicting their actions as narrative moments, instead exposing, critiquing, and enjoining their personal musings as psychological grist for his philosophical mill. In one sense, they are cogs in his machine, stick figures more than people, iconographic statues in his wider poetry, and Malick never once allows us an “entrance” into their lives or their horrors. In fact, he intentionally avoids any such sense of the personal, suggesting a literal Theater of War, a showpiece in which his characters are but spaces in the screen, a world where military masculinity and the Hollywood cinema of military masculinity enervate our personhoods, our humanity. At the same time, Malick rebukes this obviously monolithic, dehumanizing, anti-humanist proposition for a film, instead shading in his own framing with more impressionistic images of his characters in uneasy harmony with nature. Or at least, he suggests an in-the-trenches view of his characters that is not disturbing and distorting a la Spielberg – disorienting to project the physical confusion and chaos of war – but mentally fracturing and psychically unmooring because Malick is projecting an image of men who are unsettled in their relationship to the nature around them, searching through the trenches in hope of a connection they may not be able to realize.
As Malick’s film begins with one character and then denies us this character by moving away to another face with another number, his films attains the bitter poetry of non-identity. When he introduces Sean Penn or George Clooney and then asks so little of them except to exist on camera for a few minutes until Malick gets tired and moves on to the next walking stick figure, the fleeting identity of these characters over-extends the inability of a screenwriter and of a film to truly know these people. In this sense, Malick’s film is not about a soldier or a soldier’s goal, but about the geographic space between those soldiers in this dissection of the Battle of Guadalcanal, about how they don’t know each other, about how “war” can never be defined through an individual. It is a film about how war is messy and about how even trying to depict its messiness creates a certain formalism and unity and control in the way the camera chooses to leave certain elements out in service of an “image” of war, a vision of its totality or lack thereof. If Saving Private Ryan is a film that wants to be chaotic and wants to be orderly and moves between the two stubbornly and indifferently, The Thin Red Line is a film that knows that chaos and order are one and the same, that one entails the other.
Now, Terrence Malick loves cinema. He adores it, plainly and with more honesty about his love than arguably any other director working today. Why else would he go beyond effort and into personal expression in his patchworks of precision and luscious expression? Why else would he create such sheer beauty in the name of art? Malick isn’t a nihilist; he isn’t arguing against cinema. He’s trying to unmoor it, both to wrangle it into new organizations and to unlock it to explore new conundrums. He is arguing that films have many purposes, and that “realism” is artistically limiting when the medium has so much more air to breathe. Take the way Malick rejects factual truth to convey an emotional truth, hurting us with not only how films about war reduce the participants to cardboard, but how war itself achieves this goal. Again, we find Malick’s pet theme: people becoming un-real by the actions of an untamed world, and the artifice of films accidentally discovering something emotionally true about the state of a world in which violence and war are turning people into emotionless concrete slabs of lashing, implacable anti-feeling.
If Malick doesn’t ever give us a sense of his characters, it is because war stripped them from a sense of theirseves. Malick rejects narrative, never rising or lowering, building or climaxing, but maintaining a static stagnancy where-in scenes could be interchanged on the fly and the sense of teleological progress is entirely absent. Just like in a war where days fold in on each other and one’s sense of mission, identity, and forward push become almost a dreamlike attrition of the human soul. The way his camera lingers in the grass doesn’t replicate what exists in real space but what the human mind creates, the alien poetry of an unfamiliar land that feels, to these soldiers, like non-reality. He isn’t rejecting cinema, but exposing a way in which using cinematic formalism to move beyond realism can reveal something far truer about reality than plain-old realism ever could.
That “something”, in Malick’s frame, is the desire to connect to unknown spaces, unknown simultaneously because they reflect America’s ability to rupture and ravage other lands without truly connecting to them, because they expose cinema’s desire to beautify nature without truly exploring it, thereby defanging nature of its mystique, and because they reveal humanity’s more primal urge to question the spaces around them, to ask for more from them. And, for Malick, as embodied in the quasi-protagonist Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), who has gone native in an attempt to escape the military industrial confines of his reality, these spaces also reflect untamed desires which confound even his own compulsions to “connect” to nature. In other words, while the obvious reading of the film is that Malick is asking his audience, specifically his American audience, to reconnect to nature, Witt’s own consciousness – a proxy for and critique of Malick’s – exposes a more unresolved attitude toward nature, a tragic simultaneity of connection and disconnection, a sense in which Witt’s impulse to seek a purification in nature only flattens it all the further, only pacifies nature’s own devouring and chaotic and violent itches and senses. As such, Malick explores nature multi-phonically: as human-adjacent impression, as unthinking monolith, as a flickering sensorium of multipurpose potentiality that is flattened but not destroyed by human carnage and a construction of human poetry which only valorizies and seeks “purity” rather than curiosity, contradiction, and the beauty of instability in nature. Malick’s plea, ultimately, is not to compartmentalize nature. In purifying or poetically confining nature, we are still destroying it in other ways.
Malick’s film, then, isn’t ultimately reducible to treatises on humankind, nature, or the relationship thereof; most saliently, it simply explores people whipped into a meditative stupor free-associatively by the elegance of nature as something to reflect on, to “world” in a Heideggerian sense, rather than to destroy or even to “define,” suggesting a heroic resistance to easy “thesis” on Malick’s part. Thus, Malick isn’t positing a self-critique here, but a call to arms for cinema and for filmmakers to reach out and get lost in their relationship to a camera, and a camera’s inquisitive ability not only to depict but to question nature. He wishes for them to move beyond story, to move beyond the need to depict characters as “real beings”, and to explore other ways in which theme and character can be expressed. He loves artists so much, in fact, and he loves humans so much, that he can’t be so self-centered as to believe that he ever could convey the full truth of people. Unlike most filmmakers, he focuses not on what he knows, but on what he doesn’t know.
For this reason, The Thin Red Line does not approach us as a cryptic intellectual challenge but a deeply intuitive emotional experience that flows like butter, a cascading wall of pure cinema and visual storytelling that is as singularly beautiful and enticing as anything produced in the 1990s. Malick is advocating, essentially, for unleashing your inner spirit through the canvas of cinema and the brush of a camera. He is advocating for freedom, without forgetting that freedom itself is a limit, a relative that can never be an absolute. He just wants us to do what we can.