Thursday, September 15, 2011

1998 - The Thin Red Line

Perhaps I should have reconsidered attending a screening of Contagion while suffering from a cold. My coughs and sneezes may have offered those in my vicinity a whole new level of interactive experience.

Though I enjoyed the topically fascinating film, I was not entirely taken by the script. However, the fantastic cast and impressive direction did well to suppress those niggling doubts.

But what I really want to discuss is Jude Law's attempt at an Australian accent. It's disastrous. Perhaps non-Australians won't appreciate the full extent of its disastrousness, but trust me, disastrous it is. What's interesting, though, is that there doesn't seem to be any reference whatsoever to his character's nationality, which begs the question: why bother? I'm hesitant to suggest that a naturally Australian-accented actor should have been cast in the role. After all, my own opportunity for work in this country would be severely limited if actors were never allowed to play characters with accents that differed from their own. However, if the otherwise talented Mr. Law was incapable of perfecting an Australian cadence, then surely it would have been more prudent to simply make his character English.

In Law's defense, the Aussie drawl does seem to be one of those accents that is simply too difficult for a foreign actor to master. Robert Downey, Jr. came close, and Meryl Streep was moderately successful, but even those two accomplished performers didn't quite nail it. Unfortunately, though, Jude Law's effort has to rank as one of the worst.

Beginning our tour of the Best Picture nominees from 1998, we take a look at...

The Thin Red Line
Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick
(based on the novel by James Jones)
Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, John Travolta
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

As Edwin Starr asked and then immediately answered: War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. That seems to be the message in Terrence Malick's meandering The Thin Red Line, a World War II story whose primary focus is the Battle of Guadalcanal. Brigadier General Quintard (Travolta) orders C Company to seize a hill on which the Japanese have set up a bunker. Lt. Colonel Tall (Nolte) is the bad-tempered commanding officer determined to succeed. Captain Staros (Koteas) is the disobedient captain looking out for his men. Private Witt (Caviezel) is the unenthusiastic soldier recently put back into service after going AWOL. Private Bell (Chaplin) is the depressed soldier, only surviving by daydreaming about his wife back home. And that's not even half of the characters we meet and follow. They each have their own back stories and perspectives, but one thing is common to them all - the recognition and disdain of the unpredictability of war.

The artistry within The Thin Red Line is difficult to deny. Assisted by some breathtaking locations - many of which are to be found in Australia, I might add - the cinematography is exquisite. Nature plays a big role in the film and it is captured beautifully. Juxtaposing that beauty are the plentiful components of a bloody war. A violent explosion in the middle of a reedy hill is a gruesomely fascinating image. The stunt team are also to be congratulated for creating incredibly convincing effects. There are moments when it appears the stunt performer is literally in the middle of the explosion. Along with these aesthetically pleasing aspects of the film, there is a cerebral element that gives the picture a sense of poetry. In fact, the voice over narration, which is shared by several characters, is undeniably poetic, complementing the film's prettiest images.

However, if you're anything like me, your response to all this beauty and poetry may be limited to mild appreciation. Perhaps it is the unfair bias many of us have towards the mainstream, but sincere voices expounding on their emotions can easily come across as pretentious. (And yes, I'm aware of the irony of decrying pretentiousness with such pretentious language - just deal with it.) Nonetheless, The Thin Red Line still contains many traditionally narrative sequences amid its mostly rambling plot. In fact, the film is at its most captivating during the section devoted to the actual mission. The butting of heads between Tall and Staros is particularly gripping.

While featuring numerous characters mainly contributes to the film's tangentiality, it does offer the opportunity for a plethora of cameos. In fact, there were many more famous faces that were left out of the final cut. Suffice it to say, the picture features several powerful performances, and due to the nature of the film, many of those performances are far too brief, particularly those of Adrien Brody and John C. Reilly, both of whom I wanted to see more. Also worth individual mention is Jim Caviezel for his pensively touching portrayal.


  1. It is easy to see why Terrence Malick has a devoted core of cineastes who fall all over themselves when he releases one of his infrequent films. He does seem to be operating on a loftier plane than most directors. His pictures contain some of the most beautiful and artistic compositions ever put on film. For many others, myself included, his narratives leave me wanting. Like you, Matt, the middle hour and a quarter of The Thin Red Line was the most straight-forward, focused and satisfying segment. The initial 45 minutes, though a bit drawn out, did a nice job of presenting the themes and characters of this anti-war film. Unfortunately, the last 45 minutes fell apart. The air went out of the balloon. I don’t know if it was the editing or just trying to tie it all up, but something didn’t seem right. One minute you have the company as sitting ducks in a river, with scores of camouflaged Japanese ready to wipe them out. Then, after they kill one GI, they I guess decided that was enough, and the next thing, the company is safe and sound, being briefed by a miscast George Clooney.

    I read that Malick had a 6 hour film that he whittled down to just under three hours. Adrian Brody was supposed to have had the largest part. In the final cut, I don’t believe he utters a line, even when asked some important questions. All in all, a very sad movie, heightened by a melancholy dirge of a score. The only back story, Private Bell’s lovely silent scenes with his wife, is resolved with a Dear John letter. War is hell.

  2. Count me as another person who liked the beauty of the random shots of trees blowing in the wind, the sunlight in the forest, etc., but did not love the movie as an overall film. It takes more than pretty shots to make a great movie and this one was lacking.