Terrence Malick is an unavoidably divisive director. His films are known for their casual paces and often lengthy running times, and for this interest in showing nature amidst humanity, to some in a fashion that comes off as nonsensically pretentious, and to others in a fashion that shows an interesting juxtaposition of the world as it naturally is and the world as man makes it.
Normally, after my little opening thought, I launch into an essential discussion of the plot of the film, tying character names to actor names and reeling off enough of the plot that I feel comfortable in preserving the integrity of the twists, turns and surprises of the film (even if sometimes their own synopses or trailers give away some elements I refuse to). That’s honestly going to be a waste of time here. We wander in and out of the thoughts of countless characters, actors I could take an entire paragraph to name, from Jim Caviezel to John C. Reilly to Sean Penn to Elias Koteas, and even down to miniscule appearances by Nick Stahl and Jared Leto, or near-worldess roles for people like Adrien Brody, and seeming cameos by people like George Clooney and John Cusack. Witt (Caviezel) and Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte) have the greatest screentime and dialogue counts, I’d say, but despite this I still couldn’t call either protagonist or antagonist. In all the film does seem to bookend itself with Witt, but it could hardly be described as being “about” him.
Malick’s approach to film is fascinating and alluring to me, even as it is reprehensibly pretentious, slow and boring to others. Rarely, it seems, are there specified characters, in a sense. He never seems to center very completely on a single, or even pair, of characters (with a possible exception of Badlands, but it is set, of course, in an area nearly, or at least comparatively, devoid of human life) and instead we end up with what you would think is an ensemble movie. Somehow, though, it manages to not even comfortably bear that label. Despite our experience of the thoughts of the characters we see, despite the fact that we, in all likelihood, are hoping for their survival and mourn their deaths, it seems as though we never truly penetrate them. It is, in this way, very much like the way we experience other people in our regular lives. We can observe at best; some will openly articulate their thoughts as best they are able as we see characters do here, but we can only truly understand them through the lens of our own life experience. When they die, we feel something not because they are someone we’ve spent time with and come to know, but because we have seen that indeed that was a human life that was just lost. All lives are mourned in this fashion, especially as they are coupled with Hans Zimmer’s beautifully understated score, much like the rest of the sound in the film never reaching for crescendos. Speech and gunfire are sometimes muted, rarely is there intensity to any lines spoken–with a definite exception, unsurprisingly, for Nolte–in a way that never feels false but serves to enhance the feeling and atmosphere Malick is reaching for.
This is not a war film in the classic sense–this is not The Longest Day, nor Tora! Tora! Tora!, nor The Big Red One, nor even Platoon or Saving Private Ryan. In a sense, this film is more about war than any of those, depicting it in a fashion that has been venemously described as inaccurate, but that description is inaccurate. This film is not about showing war, it is about examining war, about contrasting it with the ways of more “primitive” worlds, in a small indigenous island culture we see first see Witt in, unconcerned with battle and having “wheelbarrow” races with each other at his suggestion, and about contrasting it with the beauty and majesty of life itself. The constant imagery of trees, of the beautiful plumage of island birds, of sunlight filtering through insect-devoured leaves, of a spatter of blood hitting indifferent grass–these things are not pointless or pretentious, because they are placed so deliberately and so artfully and carefully, they do not stand there for extended periods of time, they are not filmed in strange ways, no one comments on them, it is like a casual, shrugging eye, turning from scenes of carnage and confusion to a peaceful, standing tree, simply showing that both co-exist, despite their radical differences. And so we end up with a film that consults the human mind and thoughts therein to look at the darkness, sickness and violence of war, the compulsion, the confusion, the questions of necessity, morality, and the possibilities of our own ignorance as to the nature of existence as humans.
A fantastic film, but one I would hesitantly recommend due to the very specialized audience this approach will engender.