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.
It's an adjustment for viewers, too, especially for that fervent cult of fans who have psychoanalyzed, memorized, and immersed themselves in The Thin Red Line over the years. (Among the men in my family, Nick Nolte's volatile Col. Tall is as eminently quotable as Jeff Lebowski.) It's startling to find out that this same obsession-worthy film is not one that its director could find cause to watch in full or to edit with the sound on.
To be sure, nobody other than Malick could have made this strange and exhilarating movie happen. And none of his quirks, if considered on their own, would necessarily give us pause (the renowned editor Walter Murch, for example, begins the editing process with a silent picture, though one assumes Green Day is not involved). Still, Malick doesn't fit into our established category for cinema's pure artists, who tend to fall somewhere on the control-freak spectrum—think of David Fincher asking for 100 takes of a scene or Martin Scorsese knotting the gangsters' ties himself on the set of GoodFellas. Malick seems to be a different animal: unavailable, cryptic, indecisive, evasive, there-but-not-there. (His self-effacement may extend beyond a simple aversion to interviews.) To judge from the admiring but bemused conversations with his cast and crew, Malick is less like a conductor and more like a muse, perhaps, or an elusive father figure, or a benign god in whom an apostle can have faith but nothing so presumptuous as understanding. What emerges isn't a group of people striving to fulfill an artist's vision, but rather striving to figure out what that vision might be.
The impression of this collective struggle adds a poignant layer to the film itself. "Maybe all men got one big soul everybody's a part of, all faces of the same man," muses Witt. Our war movies typically celebrate bands of brothers, but in The Thin Red Line, the unbreakable connections between the men are all the more deeply felt for being shown and intuited, rarely told. Bell murmurs tearful sounds that aren't quite words to Doll (Dash Mihok) as they embrace after a harrowing battle. Welsh (Penn) barrels straight into opposing fire to aid a doomed soldier. Witt goes on a selfless one-man mission to flush out the enemy. Of course there could be no "stars" of The Thin Red Line: The men move with a single body and speak with one voice; an injury to one pains them all. It's a film about a collective unconscious—and perhaps you could say it was made by one, too. The Thin Red Line was created by a man undoubtedly in search of a great cosmic truth—about war and nature and mankind and the whole damn thing—but it was also created by a company of men and women in search of the great cosmic Terrence Malick.
Photograph of Terrence Malick © 1998 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.