The story concerns an Army company assigned to assist in clearing Japanese troops out of the island of Guadalcanal in World War II. The company must land on a possibly fortified beach and seize a key ridge that commands an important airfield. Many men will clearly die in the effort.
This story would normally be told in a rather straightforward way, as indeed it was in the previous (rather weak) adaptation of the James Jones novel the film is based on. Malick uses a different approach, which has more in common with the literary than with classical film methods. Malick's presentation starts with a lengthy pre-invasion sequence that seems at first to suggest an anthropological documentary, and then to suggest that a particular character, Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel), will be a focus for the film. Witt is a natural rebel who curiously seems to be both completely out of place and comfortably at home in the Army. But Malick quickly moves on to sketch a dozen or so other characters at various levels of detail, with the deepest treatment reserved for Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin), a former officer whose love of his wife lead to his resignation and later drafting; and Battalion commander Col. Tall (Nick Nolte), an overage officer who seethes with hidden rage at being passed over for promotion and plans to prove his worth with the upcoming battle.
Malick deploys several of his major cinematic devices early. We see many shots of nature, especially the exotic animals and plants of the South Seas. These recur throughout the film, occasionally in integral portions of the story, but more often as side comments on the proceedings. Malick also begins the use of voice overs to reveal characters' internal thoughts. Many of the film's characters speak to us in voice over throughout. Finally, Malick introduces flashbacks to the earlier lives of a couple of the characters. The device is used most heavily for Pvt. Bell.
These devices are central to Malick's presentation, and clearly served as organizing principles for the entire work. The other major elements shaping the work are Malick's intention to present the events of the film as influences on his characters, rather than as a plot that the characters move forward; and his desire to incorporate different perspectives into the film. Malick clearly intends them to serve his greater end, which is to investigate how men choose to live their lives and why those choices so often lead to disaster. Unlike so many films, this film's structure, down to fairly fine details, was clearly well thought out and planned in the mind of a director who saw in his mind's eye what he wanted.
The vision of the mind's eye is not always as clear as one might hope. The devices Malick deploys often fail, and they ultimately sink the film. The interminable pre-invasion sequence drags the film down. By the time Malick has gotten his men on the beach, many viewers will already have written the film off. Malick's use of voice over, with multiple characters thinking deep thoughts, is bold but ineffective. Too often we are uncertain which of the many characters is sharing his thoughts with us. Worse, too often those thoughts are expressed in pretentious language that seems highly unlikely to inhabit the minds of the characters. When they are far more likely to be thinking "how the hell am I going to get out of this alive," we hear them discussing fine philosophical points in language more suited to poetry than the heat of combat.
The flashbacks are similarly distracting, especially those to Pvt. Bell's marriage. Malick shows us these scenes incessantly, often at key moments in the action. The effect is to convince us that Bell's obsession with his wife is very, very important, and will be key to the action, or the theme of the film, or understanding important character developments. Ultimately, it proves to be none of these. Far too little in the film comes of this obsession to justify the time spent on it, and, worse, the breakup in the continuity of the action. I presume Malick understood this and did it anyway for some specific reason, but that reason is unclear to me.
Malick's choice to render Jones' book in fuller complexity than is typical of adaptations also leads to a shifting focus among the characters. It takes quite a while to determine just which of them are going to be important. In typical Hollywood films, the shorthand for handling this problem is to cast famous actors, or at least familiar faces, in most of the important roles. But in The Thin Red Line, not only do stars play small, trivial roles (George Clooney's role seems especially pointless), but familiar faces like John Savage and John C. Reilly crop up in parts that ultimately are of little consequence. Nothing says that a director has to use the conventional methods to sort out confusion, but if he doesn't use those methods, he needs some other method. Malick either denies the requirement or his methods failed. It takes a long time to determine who is who here, and some of the characters never really achieve any clear separation from the others.
These choices harm the film. And that's a tremendous shame, as the film has some extremely strong elements. In addition to the most obvious (excellent cinematography), several performances are very strong. Nolte and Elias Koteas deserve the greatest honors here, as they manage to convey clear characters and relationships in the face of the confusions of the rest of the film. Other actors, like Sean Penn and Jim Caviezel, do well enough, but it seems like Malick has left out key scenes or important information that would bring strong individual moments together into a coherent performance. There are clear elements of a strong, important contrast between these two characters, but the film comes just short of clarifying that contrast.
The center section of the film (in itself, as long as a conventional film) is powerful. This section, which has the clearest focus, concerns an assault on a strongly held ridge and its immediate aftermath. Malick stages this section of the film brilliantly, managing to make clear the complexities of the combat while simultaneously showing the chaos of its execution. His use of locations is particularly strong here. The hills the troops must climb are covered with shoulder-high grass, and Malick uses this and other topographical features to convey the terror of the unknown that troops must feel when assaulting an enemy position. You never know whether, in the next moment, the grass will part to reveal just more grass, or the enemy about to kill you. Death strikes from afar, as unseen machine guns suddenly end lives.
Unfortunately, Malick still has more than half an hour's material after this sequence is completed. He ultimately has one more climax he wishes to show, but the dramatic timing used to transition from the aftermath of the attack to this sequence is stilted. The film seems like it's going to end several times, only to go on.
Malick is also to be praised for his fairness in treating his characters. The most obvious instance is how the Japanese, initially little more than deadly ciphers, become extremely human and sympathetic on closer examination. But Malick gives the same treatment to other characters, as well. Nolte's obsessive Colonel, who forces assaults that seem suicidal and has too little concern for the welfare of his men, ultimately is shown to have made the correct military choices, and, more surprisingly, to have more compassion for the tragedy of the battle than one would have expected.
Many critics have said that The Thin Red Line improves greatly on second viewing, as the viewer now has a better idea of what to expect. Perhaps that's true. However, on first viewing The Thin Red Line plays as an exceedingly ambitious failure with some strong compensating virtues. As such, it's definitely worth seeing, but only for those willing to accept a different approach to film than one traditionally sees, and those willing to overlook some fairly large flaws.