A group of G.I.s struggle to gain ground against the Japanese in Guadalcanal.
The Thin Red Line is something special. Really special. In truth, the choicest comparison to make is the dreamscape genius of Coppola's 'Nam epic Apocalypse Now, depicting as it does a vision of war as a state wholly divorced from reality and utterly wrong. Malick, whose sumptuous at-one-with-nature style was set way back with his revered duo Badlands and Days Of Heaven, effects a hyper-reality within the verdant jungles of Pacific island Guadalcanal where the US infantry strive to gain ground against the Japanese.
Setting aside the narrative textbook - while the action is linear (fundamentally the tactical taking of a ridge), characters have a habit of disappearing, plotlines are left hanging in the flak, and star names take tiny roles while the emotive-power pivots on unknowns - events are driven by ethereal voice-overs and images of mud-caked GIs struggling to come to terms with the possibility of imminent death. The focus is Charlie company, a brotherhood of men unified by being shit-scared, marked out by individual reactions to that fear. Sean Penn's enigmatic Sergeant Welsh embitters himself to the pointlessness of it all. Ben Chaplin's placid Private Bell pines for his wife, torturing himself with erotic daydreams in which to protect his fraying psyche. Nick Nolte's vitriolic Colonel Tall fights a paranoia of failure by driving men to their deaths while Elias Koteas' noble Captain Staros steadfastly refuses his orders. And, at the centre, is Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) whose Zen-like serenity offers the film's spiritual focus. In various ways, tragedy will visit them all.
John Toll's cinematography is second to none (if the Oscar goes elsewhere there is officially no justice in this world). Be it the divine camera floating miraculously across the hillsides and terrified troopers obscured by the long-grass or sensuously drifting through jungle foliage, every damn frame is a work of art. The action itself is charged and brutal, brilliantly edited, more often using the soldiers' silent faces to reflect the grim bloody aftermath rather than puddles of intestines.
It is long, very, very serious and neck-deep in tropical symbolism - war as a crime against nature, thankyouverymuch. But where other war-is-hell movies essentially depict the loss of innocence, Red Line goes degrees further. War, reckons big brain Malick, is about the loss of your soul. As one sullen soldier confesses to Penn's sergeant that he is no longer able to feel anything, Penn's whispered reply is cruelly dehumanised: "That sounds like bliss."
Some, of course, may dismiss the endless recourse to lush, languid shots of light cutting through leaves and dreamy images of native children as so much directorial bottom gazing, especially combined as it is with rambling poetic monologues. This, though, is a major work from a major artist, a lose-yourself-in epic that reaches beyond mere entertainment, thrill or shock (and it covers those bases with ease) to touch the profound. It is the glorious return of a long lost talent, impossible to ignore, impossible to forget.
A wonderful, memorable return to cinema for Malick after a 20 year absence.