A Second Look: Terrence Malick’s ‘The Thin Red Line’

It’s easy to see why Terrence Malick, more than just about any working American filmmaker, inspires a reverence bordering on the cultish. There’s the scarcity of output (four features in nearly four decades), the Pynchonesque reticence (no interviews and almost no public appearances) and above all the overwhelming nature of his films, which are defined by their sensory intensity and a sense of spiritual questing.

The Malick faithful have been abuzz lately: His newly completed “Tree of Life” has been acquired for a 2011 release, and he is due to start shooting another film this fall. In the meantime, Malick’s 1998 comeback, “The Thin Red Line,” arrives in standard-definition and Blu-ray DVD editions from the Criterion Collection this week. A former journalist with a philosophy degree, Malick began his directing career with two of the defining American movies of the 1970s, “Badlands” (1973) and “Days of Heaven” (1978). Then he took a 20-year break, during which there were whispers of a few abortive projects but for the most part total silence.

He returned to a Hollywood very different from the one he’d left, and it boggles the mind that, after all that time away, Malick was able to put studio resources and an all-star cast in the service of a deeply personal, practically non-narrative film, a lyric poem as much as a war epic, the kind of movie the industry had long stopped financing. Adapted from James Jones’ 1962 novel, which was in turn based on the author’s own combat experiences in World War II, “The Thin Red Line” follows the attempts of an American Army unit to seize control of Guadalcanal, a Japanese-held island in the South Pacific.

More than an hour of the film is devoted to the soldiers’ harrowing gradual advance up a strategically important hill, fired on from unseen Japanese troops. This battle scene goes on for an eternity, and it captures a state of trancelike disorientation, with almost all the men in the grip of fear or hysteria. But Malick also offers piercing glimpses of rapture in the face of death. Throughout this grunt’s-eye reverie, he cuts away to a soldier’s sunlit memory of his angelic wife and lingers on the light as it changes on the blades of grass undulating in the wind.

A few individuals emerge from the ensemble murk: Jim Caviezel’s philosophical mystic, Sean Penn’s pragmatic cynic, the blustery colonel ( Nick Nolte) and the compassionate captain ( Elias Koteas) who clash on the battlefield over the fate of their men. But for the most part, as famous faces ( Woody Harrelson, George Clooney) come and go, and as the voiceover shifts from one character to another, the film leaves the impression of a collective hero (not least because the narration is delivered in similar drawls and is defined by the same pensive mood and literary inquisitiveness).

The further the film burrows into the innermost thoughts of these men, the more isolating the effect. Most platoon dramas emphasize comradeship, but this most cosmic and interior of war movies is finally about the impossibility of escaping one’s own head.

“The Thin Red Line” takes to heart its opening mention of a “war in the heart of nature,” by which Malick means both the natural world and the nature of man. “Darkness and light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind?” Caviezel’s Pvt. Witt wonders. The movie takes shape as a rich network of opposing forces: fear of death and awe for life, the heady abstraction of its ideas and the near-hallucinatory clarity of its sounds and images (especially evident in the Blu-ray version).

The extras include 14 minutes of outtakes, interviews with several actors and a commentary track by production designer Jack Fisk, producer Grant Hill and cinematographer John Toll (who was nominated for an Oscar for the film). Malick, who supervised the transfer, remains his usual invisible self, but the reclusive auteur does offer one very apt bit of instruction. After the Play button is hit, the following message pops up on the screen: “Terrence Malick recommends that ‘The Thin Red Line’ be played loud.”