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After a hiatus of 20 years, the idiosyncratic and perhaps iconic American director Terrence Malick picks up where his two other feature films left off. The Thin Red Line continues the story of the soldiers in Badlands who spirit a serial killer to his fate before meeting their own mysterious destiny, and teases out the contradictions inherent in Days of Heaven’s idyllic and heartless nature.

To describe The Thin Red Line as a wonderful movie can’t begin to explain the elusive nature of Malick’s wonder the elliptical scenes that end after seconds or long minutes; the dark humor, flat as the ocean; the juxtaposition of imagery more expository than any speech. Lifting plot and character out of James Jones’ 1962 novel, Malick leaves Jones’ stark, meat-and-potatoes language behind, inventing narration and dialogue that pay Jones his due better than mere transcription. Jones’ private curiosity about Eastern religions and the resilience of the soul meshes brilliantly with Malick’s multidimensional, not altogether likable characters and his insistence that no theme not nature, murder, or war is ever bigger than the people who enact it.

All the questions that pepper the film the narration is largely made up of questions are laid out before the fighting begins. Although the time line is unclear, it must be 1942, some time after the first U.S. Army invasion of Guadalcanal, on which the Marines have previously established a beachhead after a punishing monthslong conflict with the Japanese who control the island. Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) and a buddy have gone beatifically AWOL in the paradise, canoeing, picking fruit, and frolicking with the local children. (Jones carried some characters through from From Here to Eternity to The Thin Red Line to Whistle; Witt is understandably what became of Prewitt.) In voice-over, Witt observes the violence of this and all magnificent landscapes, noting that “the land contends with the sea”; he questions immortality and remembers his mother’s death with horror and admiration. In a few allusive images, Malick pulls together the threads of the story he’s going to tell: the obscure workings of the body, the harsh will of death, the nature of human transience.

Witt is soon captured and returned to his division. After a quick introduction to Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn), who rescues Witt from a court martial, and apoplectic Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte), and a cringe-inducing but blessedly single scene with John Travolta as a general, they pour in—dozens of men with vaguely familiar faces, virtually nameless, whose stories we never fully understand. Over the next three hours, we watch how a whole lot of individuals with varying degrees of decency, corruption, terror, or eagerness become mindless killing machines. We also see that the humanity that other war movies insist such men lose stays intact even as their minds and bodies break down.

Malick keeps this and many other contradictory arguments simultaneously afloat by not allowing the men’s corruption/decency, etc. to determine their behavior. He has no patience for corn or the simplistic equations that breed corn. To cite the inevitable comparison, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan drew straight lines between attitude and action: Good men act heroically, intrinsically bad ones are cowards. The Thin Red Line does not reduce its men to archetypes. When Witt is folded back into C Company, he acts bravely and with gusto, leading a tricky reconnaissance mission through a river with only two other men. Welsh prevails despite having absolutely no resources to protect himself he is unaffected by moral numbness, spiritual belief, or a will to survive, like that of Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin), who dreams in color and silence of his summery wife back home. Decent, fatherly Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas) is punished for his efforts to spare his men a suicide mission.

The film’s story arc is nerve-rackingly arrhythmic; all the cadence lies in the voice-overs and the friction between the men’s musings and the landscape or action around them. The battles’ scale is generally small, close in, and nasty. The men of C Company rustle tensely through the tall grass on their way to a hill they must take head on. (In the first of many breathtaking moments, the men hear a noise, and we see the dark mushrooms of their helmets dip and disappear in unison; before we or they can recover, it happens again that’s how you know you’re watching a Terrence Malick movie.) A hidden bunker at the top of the hill devastates them, and they charge again, in fits and starts, taking refuge behind rocks.

After this heroic charge, led by Capt. Gaff (John Cusack), they come upon the Japanese stronghold, where men in hospitals beg to die and soldiers pray serenely on the ground. These are not the cartoon Germans of Saving Private Ryan, with their bullet heads and bluster; the Japanese are as mad, as fierce, as frightened as the force that overwhelms them. At the same time, they are the enemy—Malick needs no touching scenes of international brotherhood to grant the Japanese their humanity; nor is it germane to their depiction that the Americans are merciless.

Whereas Saving Private Ryan was an old-fashioned war flick expanded by a newfangled capacity for gore, The Thin Red Line has as little guts as it does glory; Malick’s screenplay also excises Jones’ dirty talk. But the film’s definition of glory doesn’t include the patriotic bombast of genre war movies, of which Saving Private Ryan is only the most accomplished example. “Who are you who live in all these many forms?” asks Witt on one long march, but before you can say “God,” Witt answers himself: “You’re Death, that captures all.” And life, and nature, and humanity. These Americans have never seen such a land before, but even if Malick is constantly looking up at the canopy of exotic foliage or watching birds and lizards, the men are not. Their refusal to acknowledge the beauty through which they rampage isn’t insensitivity, but sensitivity of a most exquisite kind: Stop to endure the wonder around them, and they’ll end up like Witt, kayaking with local children, vulnerable, resourceless. The Thin Red Line depicts death as awesomely random they might be killed by an enemy, by themselves, by the untested land; it takes nerve to keep so much at bay. “They got fish that live in trees,” an Army captain is breathlessly told when he first lands, as he stares into the unflinching eyes of a native conscripted for service.

If anything threatens to unseat the thrilling, hushed tone, it’s Nolte’s absurd performance. Bull-necked and squinty-eyed, he’s physically ridiculous for the part of a resentful Army career guy, and his vein-throbbing, gung-ho shriekfests are tiresome as well as jarring, particularly in contrast to Koteas’ marvelous weight and sadness. But aside from some flicker-brief stunt casting (you may have heard that George Clooney is in this movie; that’s almost a lie), the performances are awesome Penn restrained and relaxed, Chaplin bent under the burden of love, Woody Harrelson the butt of a fatal joke as the unfortunate Sgt. Keck, and especially Caviezel as Witt, with his cold, calm eyes and hardscrabble smile. What dialogue there is flutters down like confetti, elliptical and strange, but Malick’s craft ensures that every word counts. When Tall tells Gaff, “You’re like a son to me,” it’s Malick’s way of revealing both characters’ psychology Tall is the kind of guy who thinks he has to say crap like that (as empty as the promise that he’s ordered fresh water for the dehydrated troops) but doesn’t realize that Gaff is not the guy he needs to say it to. Later, Staros tells his men that they are like his sons, and the truth of it makes him reel.

The Thin Red Line is a mysterious, inaccessible, fascinating film, and because of everything that’s great about it, two bad things will happen to it: First, since war movies are thought of as genre entertainment by definition, and since Malick soldiers on in his refusal to impose meaning on things he believes are inherently meaningful, it will be compared with other war movies and found wanting. Critics find aesthetic variation tolerable, but context argues for strong judgment; to impose judgment on Jones’ scenario either in relation to Spielberg’s grim manipulations or Francis Ford Coppola’s arty surrealism would be to demean the eternal, mystifying nature of the war experience. Second, it will tank with the public, because genre filmmaking does not allow for aesthetic variation, and Malick offers no absolution for either hawks or doves with his chilling contention that human warfare is part of our contribution to the natural weal.

For all its stylistic audacity, the film is oddly baffled and composed: Men go in, do terrible things, and then leave, without ever finding out why or learning a thing. If Malick argues at all, it is to say that people come out of an experience with exactly what they brought to it; even the onslaught at Guadalcanal is a part of life, and therefore it can’t change life, only end it. The Thin Red Line is not an anti-war movie; it’s a war anti-movie. Just because it’s the only one doesn’t keep it from being the greatest ever made.