Place a copy of the new Criterion Collection edition of The Thin Red Line in your DVD player and a curious message will appear on your television screen: “Director Terrence Malick recommends that The Thin Red Line be played loud.” This is made all the more strange because this is Terrence Malick we’re talking about, a filmmaker who’s famous for being reclusive and uncommunicative. Over his 40-year career as a writer and director, the Austin native has given no interviews, sat for no photo shoots, lobbied for no awards, and appeared on no television shows. That he’s communicating with the outside world about anything, especially one of his movies, is a minor miracle.
Like its creator, The Thin Red Line is elusive and shrouded in mystery. Its structure and storyline, about a division of American soldiers fighting on Guadalcanal during World War II, feel impulsive and kaleidoscopic. A visual artist first, a philosopher second, and a writer last, Malick was never one to let a little thing like narrative cohesion get in the way of his vision. His two previous films, Badlands and Days of Heaven, were brilliantly meandering and unfocused. After all, did the world really need another movie with a tight three-act structure when there was so much wheat at twilight to be filmed? The Thin Red Line has enough gorgeous, lingering shots of trees, rivers, jungle birds and cloud formations to shame a thousand nature documentarians and give war-movie buffs fits.
Do what Malick says and turn up the volume. The Thin Red Line’s bombs are deafening but Malick also wants you to hear the sound of wind rustling through tall grass, and what’s going on inside the soldiers’ heads. Plotlines and military strategies are introduced only to be swallowed up by philosophical meditations on the mysteries of humanity and experiments in cinematic impressionism. Dialogue is tossed in favor of long symphonic reveries and cryptic voice-overs about the soul and its relation to the natural world. Malick is a great artist because he gives us a new way of looking at the world and a new vocabulary for talking about it, and with The Thin Red Line he doesn’t just deconstruct the war genre; he turns it inside out, exposing the beauty at the heart of destruction and the destructiveness at the heart of nature. That rarest of Hollywood movies, The Thin Red Line is unapologetically about something profound and inscrutable.
Which makes the new DVD extras such a bittersweet offering. On the one hand, the various interviews with Malick’s collaborators give a look inside the director’s creative process, which is a revelation. They reminisce about how the director, like a master sculptor, guided them to create a new kind of film, one that would place feeling before story and questions before answers. On the other hand, how much should you really want to know about the making of a great work of art, especially one as suggestive and open to interpretation as The Thin Red Line?
In the end, some mysteries may be better left unexplained and some scaffolds better left unseen. Which, I’m guessing, is why Malick—that greatest of cinema enigmas—once again decided to stay far away from the microphones and the prying eye of the camera and let his vision speak for itself. Once every 40 years Terrence Malick may recommend the right volume level to view one of his movies, but the rest you still have to figure out for yourself.