Criterion Sunday 536: The Thin Red Line (1998)

I have seen this film many times on the big screen, but have never tried to put into words what I love about it. And while it’s fair to say it’s one of my favourite films, and I’m happy to rate it five stars (or 10/10 or whatever metric you want, although apparently two green ticks is what I currently use here), I don’t particularly hold that it is perfect in every detail. Perhaps what I love about it is more some of the effects that Terrence Malick achieves as a filmmaker, poetic and empathetic achievements, the deployment of actors, the development of its narrative, and the way it stands in relation to other war movies. Because if we want to get into criticism, then I think some of the tropes are still a little bit underdeveloped — particularly Ben Chaplin’s Pvt Bell and his relationship with his wife back home (Miranda Otto), conveyed in largely voiceless flashbacks of them holding each other in pre-war times and followed up with an almost literal “Dear John” letter (his name is actually Jack in the film) and his anguished responses in the twilight and rain of the R&R following a major battle, all of which feels a little bit convenient and familiar.

What’s not so familiar is the elegiac tone, which differed wildly from the other major World War II-era film released that same year of 1998 (Saving Private Ryan). Where Spielberg’s film, or at least its opening, was forceful in its evocation of the brutality of combat, Malick’s film instead subsumes everything into a sort of continuum with nature. The voiceovers — which come from many different characters and create almost a shared voice of humanity joined in pain and confusion — cue this up almost from the outset, the very first words we hear asking “What is this war in the heart of nature, why does nature vie with itself?” while we look on gnarled old swampland trees, overgrown with vines and tendrils. Even when we see our first combat casualty, it’s part of a sequence of the new troops making their way quietly through the jungle, and so the brutality of the vision of a mangled body becomes just part of the evocation of the darkness within nature. The extended battle scenes too alternate Nick Nolte’s Lt Tall shouting down the phone at Cpt Staros (Elias Koteas) with long languorous shots of the Guadalcanal hills, long grass flecked with sun, winds blowing them aside as the troops advance towards the Japanese positions.

So when I say that the film’s imperfections don’t matter to me so much, it’s because this to me is a film about humanity (specifically men, of course) within nature, about death as part of a continuum of life, about the search for the light. This central metaphor of the light is clearly a religious one, and Jim Caviezel’s subsequent film work playing the Christ in Mel Gibson’s self-flagellating film of the Passion (and others) finds its origins here in what is undoubtedly supposed to be a Christ-like figure, rebelling against authority and trying to find the light and goodness in his fellow men. I’m not convinced about the way Malick uses the indigenous Melanesian people in the opening ‘paradise’ sections as well as the subsequent commentary on their fall due to the war which has been unwillingly brought to them, but for me it’s nevertheless a beautiful sequence that combines John Toll’s cinematography with Fauré’s Requiem and Melanesian choirs orchestrated by composer Hans Zimmer, to convey in musical and visual terms this search for the light that ends the film too. Again and again, the restless camera cranes away towards the sky and the sun, and either we see it through the roofs of the homes in the flashback sequences, or it’s obscured by the jungle trees, perceived only as light filtering through the crevices between the leaves, or in holes that nature has made through them.

So yes, while I cannot say that do not see flaws in The Thin Red Line, they are the flaws perhaps of overreaching, of Malick and his fellow collaborators on this film, trying to get at something essential in humanity or how they see humanity as part of the world. It’s a poetic evocation of a world that owes as much to the Bible as it does to James Jones’s novel or to (what I imagine is) the experience of war itself, and so it’s a film I love and happily continue to watch over and over again.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Terrence Malick (based on the novel by James Jones); Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok; Length 171 minutes.

Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Tuesday 2 March 1999, at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 7 June 1999, at Riverside Studios, London, Thursday 18 March 2004, and at the Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 15 November 2020 (and on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray at home, in Wellington and London, on several occasions in between).

Criterion Sunday 409: Days of Heaven (1978)

I’m hardly a Terrence Malick fanboy (at least, not based on his output over the last decade or so) but one or two of his films really get to me, and this is one. You can see a lot of the aspects of his style that he would develop further in his 21st century work — for example, a focus on nature and wind sweeping through grass, or a propensity for the camera to drift off and focus on some still life little image in microcosm rather than dwell on plot or melodrama, as well as a largely unspoken Christian underpinning to the broad sweep of the film and its themes. The Criterion Collection’s previous release was Breathless and, for all the enormous difference in setting and feel (Malick’s film is set in 1916 Texas), there are some genetic similarities to that, like the occasional handheld shots, location shooting with natural lighting, not to mention a plot in which the lead character’s murder of an authority figure is pushed far into the background, and quite often the plot doesn’t even feel that important. Days of Heaven is a film composed of feeling above all: the dappled colours of the ‘golden hour’ (the time of day after the sun has set, and still the most well-known thing about this film, even though there’s plenty that’s shot during the morning and night as well); the poetic voiceover by Linda Manz; and the meandering sense that this isn’t about what happens in the end but about the beauty we’ve witnessed along the way. Luckily this kind of visual cinema is what appeals to me.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Aside from a commentary, the extras are four short piece split into two headings, “Actors” and “Camera”. For the actors section, there’s an audio interview with Richard Gere and a video one with Sam Shepard, both of whom recall Malick’s methods for eliciting a performance and his shy self-effacing way on set.
  • The “Camera” interviews are with the camera operator John Bailey as well as with Haskell Wexler, who took over from Almendros when the latter had to leave the project to go do a Truffaut film. Legend says that Wexler was miffed at not receiving a full credit, but he concedes in retrospect that he was just continuing the work set in place by Almendros. Either way, what a visual achievement.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 14 May 1998, and at BFI Southbank, London, Sunday 11 September 2011 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 20 March 2021).

A Hidden Life (2019)

A discussion that has cropped up once again in political and media circles has been around “antifa”, and every time it happens a lot of people with the same wearied tone have to explain it’s not an organisation, it’s an ethos, a motivating ideal, a praxis and a shared struggle: it is just short for “anti-fascist”. Such struggles can take an explosive, active form, and there are no shortage of World War II movies to illustrate that (though most are Hollywood stories of heroism against the odds). Terrence Malick’s most recent film instead deals with the internal contortions, of morality and faith competing with self-preservation, and the way that just these simple acts of resistance can carry their own dangers. The only thing that “antifa”, such as it is, calls us to do is to resist fascism. All that I can hope is that to continue to do so is something which does not lead to the outcome in today’s film, but as some of the world’s largest countries have taken an active turn towards demagoguery and fascism, that is starting to seem rather more perilous.


I haven’t really connected with many of Malick’s films since The Thin Red Line (and certainly not the last few), as he’s progressively loosened his narrative focus in preference for impressionistic movements. However, with A Hidden Life, he seems to have reined this extravagance in a bit (though the stylistic tics are still very much evident), not to mention choosing a setting and theme that seems more fitting to his particular style. Of course, there’s still plenty of voiceover, used more as another layer of sound than to convey any specific information, and he takes the interesting decision to have the film in English except where perhaps the words are less important — background chatter, bureaucratic invective, in which case it’s in German.

It’s an odd film, though, that bathes this story — of Franz (August Diehl), an Austrian peasant in the early-1940s, who grimly resolves (with an at times wavering, but nevertheless increasingly bitterly held, sense of moral clarity) to defy military tribunals and not speak the ‘Hitler oath’ — in a certain sort of beatific calm, which makes sense given he was after all beatified not so long ago. There’s little sense of the actual war, and perhaps in 1940-1943 (when the film is set), it hasn’t particularly reached the alpine Austrian setting of St Radegund or even the Berlin prison he’s shipped off to later. There’s one chilling scene where the village’s mayor inveighs against the dangers of immigrants and foreigners, despite clearly having none in his midst, which obviously remains current, but otherwise this is very much focused on Franz and (almost equally) his wife Franziska, grounding their story in the community and (as you might expect from a Malick film) the glory of the natural world. It’s not even quite as overtly spiritual as some of his more recent films have been, though given Franz’s Catholic faith and his later beatification, it is obviously imbued with that throughout.

I liked it, and didn’t even feel the running time once the movie started to hold me. It’s shot with some oddly distorting lenses, and the camera operators must all have been children given how close to the ground the camera seems to be most of the time, but Malick’s impressionist excesses aren’t so much on show or are perhaps less jarring when not juxtaposed against Hollywood or indie music backgrounds.

A Hidden Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Jörg Widmer; Starring August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz; Length 174 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Friday 17 January 2020.

Knight of Cups (2015)

By now we surely all know what to expect from a Malick film, and if you’ve seen To the Wonder or any of his output of the last 10 years or so, Knight of Cups won’t present any new narrative challenges. But for those who haven’t been keeping up and look at the cast list thinking this could be good should bear in mind that there is no plot to speak of; rather one could say there’s a series of questions that we as viewers and Christian Bale as the screenwriter protagonist Rick, seek answers to. The title and the film’s structure is taken from the Tarot deck, and we are in a sense led through a reading for Rick’s title character. The film is dominated by Bale; all the other actors are very much in the background, glimpsed in passing, as fragments of the conversation Rick is having with himself, into which Malick’s camera seems to inveigle itself. As ever, the camera floats around, lingering behind Bale’s shoulder or viewing him and those he interacts with from a low-angle, bound to the earth, looking up at the sky. There’s no dialogue to speak of: if we see two characters interacting, their words are faded out, to be replaced by an interior monologue, whether of one of the other characters or of Rick — this aspect of Malick’s filmmaking has been in place since almost his beginnings. So, narratively it’s dense and it’s opaque and it’s difficult to get drawn into, but it does allow for some moments of beauty and fascination. Yet the associative editing (two years in post-production, we’ll recall) leads the film out on obscure tangents. At this point terms like ‘self-indulgent’ and ‘pretentious’ seem entirely unequal to what Malick is doing, though they’ll no doubt be trumpeted by plenty of critics. For myself, I don’t find this work as successful as his earlier To the Wonder, largely because Bale’s Rick seems so empty a character, not unlike the protagonist of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010). Yet, after all, the issues that Rick is grappling with are fundamental ones: how to re-connect with others after the death of his brother and the havoc this event, only elliptically alluded to, has wrought on his remaining family (other brother Barry, Wes Bentley, and father Joseph, Brian Dennehy) and his relationship with ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett).

Knight of Cups film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; Starring Christian Bale, Wes Bentley, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Omnia, Rouen, Sunday 6 December 2015.

To the Wonder (2012)

I think it’s fairly well understood that Malick’s films are an acquired taste, especially the more recent ones. After The Tree of Life (2011) — which on balance I was not a huge fan of — comes this new film, and both of them (more than previous Malick films) eschew traditional scenes of dialogue, often cutting away before someone speaks or cutting to them just after it seems as if they’ve spoken. On the rare occasions when characters are shown speaking, the sound is generally faded out before they finish, let alone any response is given. Swift editing imbricates flashes of future and past time, an impressionistic bricolage of images. Which all goes to make it a film of fleeting experiences, of connections made at a level other than speech. Of course, there’s still the poetic voiceover, this time primarily in French (also Spanish and Italian, and very little English), which perhaps makes the tone of it less intrusive to English-speaking audiences than it can seem in such films as The Thin Red Line (1999, my personal favourite of Malick’s films). But you wouldn’t expect a Malickian voiceover to explain anything: it remains at the level of laconic, gnomic utterances.

The film is focused on Olga Kurylenko, as a free-spirited French woman who falls in love with an American, moves to Oklahoma for a while, then moves home. That’s basically all that happens in the film, at a plot level. As a character, she’s thinly-drawn: she has no apparent job. The camera constantly follows her as she walks, sometimes runs, ahead, spreading out her arms, twirling, pulling her friends, her lovers, the camera, us, behind her. There are three other, essentially supporting, characters here. Ben Affleck is her love interest, playing some kind of environmental scientist, so his primary relationship is with nature, and there are fleeting scenes showing the damage being wreaked on it by people. The lovely Rachel McAdams plays a local woman who works on a farm (this bit is a bit less believable), so again she works with the land. Javier Bardem plays a priest, perhaps the character who is most often shown trying to communicate, which often takes him to more human scenes of dereliction and poverty.

But the film doesn’t really feel as if it’s about these characters as people, so much as what they represent. There’s the contrast between Europe (Mont Saint-Michel on the coast, the city of Paris) and the new world of Oklahoma. The faith that seems centred at Mont Saint-Michel is set adrift in the huge expanses of Oklahoma; it’s only in the enclosed spaces of the prison and the confessional booth that Bardem’s character connects with his calling. But then again the outdoors in this new world is always filmed imbued with a beautiful radiant golden light, where it’s glum and a bit oppressive in Europe.

If those are just some feelings I get from the film, thinking back upon it, then that’s because it’s a film primarily of feelings. It certainly won’t be for everyone, but it made me happy.


CREDITS
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; Starring Olga Kurylenko Ольга Куриленко, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 24 February 2013.