Like a Rousseau painting splattered with carnage of warfare, "The Thin Red Line" indelibly presents a worldly paradise devastated by man's irrepressible impulse to destroy. Terrence Malick's much-anticipated return to the film scene after a 20-year hiatus is a complex, highly talented work marked by intellectual and philosophical ambitions that will captivate some critics and serious viewers.

Like a Rousseau painting splattered with carnage of warfare, “The Thin Red Line” indelibly presents a worldly paradise devastated by man’s irrepressible impulse to destroy. Terrence Malick’s much-anticipated return to the film scene after a 20-year hiatus is a complex, highly talented work marked by intellectual and philosophical ambitions that will captivate some critics and serious viewers as well as by an abstract nature, emotional remoteness and lack of dramatic focus that will frustrate mainstream audiences. Fox’s only hope with this large-canvas art film is to get enough strong reviews to engage the attention of the upscale viewers beyond the small portion of them familiar with Malick’s outstanding 1970s work, then give it enough breathing room to allow for word-of-mouth to have an effect. Otherwise, the highbrow film elite will be its only constituency.

The film under review is the final release version, for which the sans-end-credits picture portion runs three minutes shorter than the unfinished cut screened for critics in L.A. and New York nearly two weeks ago.

Malick’s previous features, “Badlands” (1973) and “Days of Heaven” (1978), were never more than cult hits, but they were sufficiently distinctive and memorable for the reclusive writer-director to parlay them into legendary status for himself during his two decades of Garboesque silence. The fact that few, if any, filmmakers this side of Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira have ever resurfaced after such a long layoff was hardly encouraging, but Malick has made it back with a picture that bears many of his trademark touches, as well as a scope far beyond anything he’s done before.

Part of the problem with “The Thin Red Line” lies with expectations. Modern audiences will initially be interested in how it stacks up against the year’s previous World War II epic, “Saving Private Ryan,” and while Malick does deliver a fair amount of bloody action, including one very intense sequence involving the taking of a hilltop bunker, the film’s intentions could not be more diverse; the new picture’s counterpart to “Ryan’s” stunning opening act is an armed beach landing in which not a shot is even fired.

WWII buffs and fans of the James Jones novel on which the film is based may be brought up short by the lack of political, strategic and military nuts and bolts vis-a-vis the battle of Guadalcanal, while even the Malick faithful will have to remember that the director’s forte was always for fabulous visuals and haunting moods rather than for coherent storytelling.

However, from the opening shot of a giant crocodile sliding into the muck through a 10-minute prologue devoted to the ruminations of a U.S. Army soldier AWOL with a buddy on an idyllic tropical island, it is clear that Malick has things on his mind other than the specifics of what it took to turn the tide of the war in the Pacific. Things like the Garden of Eden, Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” mankind as a collective embodiment of the two extremes of nature, and other lofty but hardly obscure notions.

The first characters to come to the fore in Malick’s significantly splintered tale are Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel), one of the AWOL soldiers, who will always idealize his privileged moments among the friendly island natives even during the peak of battle, and First Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn), the cynical every-man-for-himself leader of Charlie Company, an Army infantry outfit being sent to replace Marines in the invasion of Japanese-held Guadal-canal.

The troop ship is loaded with other soldiers very anxious about what awaits them on the island: Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte), an aging lifer with the opportunity to finally lead a battalion in battle; Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas), a thoughtful lawyer and commander of Charlie Company whose desire to protect his men puts him at odds with Tall; Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin), who is fixated on the wife he left back home; and Capt. Gaff (John Cusack), whose intelligent resourcefulness will prove no more or less useful in battle than the animal instincts of Pfc. Doll (Dash Mihok).

Surprised to encounter no initial resistance on the lush green island, the Americans are forced to pursue the Japanese up toward their dug-in positions in the hills, resulting in some fierce action, loads of casualties and a resulting refusal by Staros to obey what he views as Tall’s suicidal order to take one hill by frontal assault. The way the fighting plays out, with stars in cameos, such as Woody Harrelson, as well as nonentities being killed, fully justifies one character’s remark about the utter randomness of who survives in war and who doesn’t.

The tense, superbly rendered capture of the hilltop machine gun nest reps the film’s exciting midpoint to which everything has built; after that, the focus disperses again, as the men rout a Japanese encampment, Tall relieves the sensitive Staros of his command for not being “tough enough,” Bell learns what his beloved wife has been up to during his prolonged absence, and Witt puts his life on the line in a final confrontation with the Japanese before what’s left of the company is shipped out.

Structurally, the film is decidedly lumpy, with confrontations and climaxes coming and going abruptly, and a final 45 minutes in which the dramatic momentum slides noticeably downhill. Characters who are given special attention for a while then disappear for considerable lengths of time — Penn’s stand-apart sergeant is a particular victim of this choppiness; some, such as John Savage’s ranting and raving sergeant, have little apparent connection to anything else going on, while others, particularly Cpl. Fife (Adrien Brody), a much more central character in the novel, have been cut down to virtually nothing (Brody has all of two lines, incomprehensible ones at that).

The matter of dramatic coherence is compounded by some casting moves. Caviezel and Chaplin carve two of the best characterizations in the picture, but their physical resemblance, especially at a distance and in uniform, makes it difficult to always keep them distinct; even the more recognizable Cusack and Koteas, the latter outstanding as the conscience-afflicted captain, share the same coloring and general demeanor as the former two.

Among the better known thesps, Nolte stands out as the determined chief of ground forces and Harrelson has a strong death scene. But John Travolta, in early on as a general, and George Clooney, on view even more briefly six minutes before the end, prove more distracting than helpful in cameos.

As good as some of the actors are in individual dramatic moments, there are no real character arcs here and, as a result, no truly rounded performances. As far as the men are concerned, Malick’s conception works only if the individuals are viewed as aspects of a collective humanity, with each soldier’s response to the extremity of war as plausible as any other.

Just as in Malick’s previous films, the full meaning of “The Thin Red Line” is realized only in the extensive voiceover commentaries, which are offered up by several of the characters. Many of these consist of elemental rhetorical queries into the spiritual bearings of the universe. “What’s this war at the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? Is there an avenging power in nature?” Witt asks at the outset, with frolicking natives and vaulting choral music backgrounding his inquiries.

Other investigations into the sources of evil and love, into the contrary impulses to look out for oneself or to behave selflessly and, ultimately, into biblical notions of innocence forever lost — Witt wonders, “How did we lose the good that was given us, let it slip away, scattered careless?” — give the film a philosophical dimension — some will say pretension — rare in films at any time, no more so than today.

Physically, the film is ravishing, and Malick’s ability to build dense, multi-layered sequences proves as supple as ever. Lenser John Toll’s most striking images come in shots that seem to float above the tall reeds and grass of the hillsides as the men make their arduous ascents. A limited amount of shooting was done at Guadalcanal, but for the most part the Daintree Rain Forest in Queensland, Australia, has filled in beautifully for the intended location. Hans Zimmer’s omnipresent score stresses a meditative, often mournful tone, and the intricate sound editing emphasizes natural ambient noises just as occasional cutaways to jungle animals places the men in the context of all living things. Among former Malick collaborators back with him here are production designer Jack Fisk, co-editor Billy Weber and casting director Dianne Crittenden.

Jones’ novel was filmed once before, in 1964, with director Andrew Marton and stars Keir Dullea and Jack Warden fighting a losing battle with a lackluster supporting cast and meager production values but nonetheless managing to deliver a convincingly bleak and despairing view of warfare.

The Thin Red Line

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox 2000 Pictures presentation from Phoenix Pictures in association with George Stevens Jr. of a Geisler/Roberdeau production. Produced by Robert Michael Geisler, John Roberdeau, Grant Hill. Executive producer, Stevens. Directed, written by Terrence Malick, based on the novel by James Jones. Reviewed at Warner Hollywood Studios, L.A., Dec. 17, 1998.

Crew

Camera (Atlab color, Technicolor prints; Panavision wide-screen), John Toll; editors, Billy Weber, Leslie Jones, Saar Klein; music, Hans Zimmer; production designer, Jack Fisk; art director, Ian Gracie; set decorators, Richard Hobbs, Suza Maybury; costume designer, Margot Wilson; sound (Dolby digital), Paul "Salty" Brincat; supervising sound editor, J. Paul Huntsman; key military adviser, Mike Stokey; stunt coordinator, Glenn Boswell; associate producers, Michael Stevens, Sheila Davis Lawrence; assistant director, Skip Cosper; second unit director, Gary Capo; casting, Dianne Crittenden. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 170 MIN.

With

First Sgt. Edward Welsh - Sean Penn Cpl. Fife - Adrien Brody Pvt. Witt - Jim Caviezel Pvt. Bell - Ben Chaplin Capt. Charles Bosche - George Clooney Capt. John Gaff - John Cusack Sgt. Keck - Woody Harrelson Capt. James "Bugger" Staros - Elias Koteas Second Lt. Whyte - Jared Leto Pfc. Doll - Dash Mihok Pvt. Tills - Tim Blake Nelson Lt. Col. Gordon Tall - Nick Nolte Sgt. Storm - John C. Reilly Pvt. Mazzi - Larry Romano Sgt. McCron - John Savage Brig. Gen. Quintard - John Travolta Pfc. Dale - Arie Verveen Cpl. Queen - David Harrod Pvt. Ash - Tom Jane Melanesian Woman with Child - Polyn Leona Marty Bell - Miranda Otto

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