The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Adjustment Bureau
Career TV Award
Presidents Award
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
The Naked Kiss
Rocky Horror
The Thin Red Line
ASC Close-Up
The Thin Red Line (1998)
Blu-ray Edition
2.35:1 (1080p High-Definition)
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

How many films are worth a 20-year wait? That’s the amount of time that passed between the release of director Terrence Malick’s 1978 masterpiece Days of Heaven and his subsequent film, the 1998 World War II drama The Thin Red Line. Few movies could withstand the kind of intense anticipation that awaited The Thin Red Line’s opening, but for many serious filmgoers (including Martin Scorsese, who named it the best American film of the 1990s), Malick’s epic lived up to the hype. Its basic premise, adapted from James Jones’s 1962 novel, is indistinguishable from hundreds of other Hollywood war movies, in that its only real plot is to follow a company of infantryman fighting on Guadalcanal Island. Yet while The Thin Red Line does offer many of the traditional satisfactions of the combat film (its kinetic action sequences are every bit as thrilling as those in Saving Private Ryan, which was released only five months earlier), in screenwriter Malick’s hands it becomes something much more: a meditation on the roots of war and violence, on man’s connection to his fellow man as well as to the land, and on the complex relationships between language, action, intellect, and emotion.

Malick’s structure is extremely fluid and audacious, as he follows dozens of characters without providing a clear-cut identification figure for the audience or a specific point of view. Voice-over commentary is spoken by several different characters as well as unidentifiable narrators, and the historical details and overall sense of time are often vague, leaving the viewer without conventional narrative signposts to stay oriented. Gradually, however, Malick’s kaleidoscopic approach begins to cohere and the many contrasts in the film – not only the obvious one between violent action and lyrical celebrations of nature, but the contradictions that exist between and within many of the infantrymen – reveal themselves to be indicative of the director’s overall intention. That intention is nothing less than to ponder the very nature of existence, a lofty goal that Malick and his collaborators achieve over the course of The Thin Red Line’s nearly three-hour running time.

Chief among Malick’s partners in this endeavor is director of photography John Toll, ASC, whose images contain and express the numerous dichotomies the script seeks to explore. Right from the striking opening image of a crocodile slithering through the water, Toll conveys a simultaneous sense of beauty and dread, and it’s a testament to his gifts that the film’s many scenes of violence are equally beautiful without sacrificing the sense of absolute terror and incomprehension that most of the characters experience. Working with a minimal reliance on artificial light, Toll contextualizes the characters within their landscape and finds the perfect visual corollary for Malick’s theme of man’s connection to nature and how it can be harmonious, destructive, or both.

While the full impact of Toll’s powerful but subtle cinematography is best experienced on the big screen, Criterion’s new Blu-ray release is the next best thing. The high-definition transfer is exceptional even by Criterion’s high standards, with particularly sharp detail in the high-contrast day exteriors, in which Toll often utilizes both extremely bright sunlight and extremely dark shadows within the frame to create a visually arresting but naturalistic style. There’s also astonishing detail in the movie’s many deep-focus shots, in which Toll uses both the width of the 2.35:1 frame and an extended depth of field to illustrate multiple characters’ relationships with each other and their environment. This deep-focus technique gives The Thin Red Line an immersive quality that extends to the soundtrack as well, with its broad dynamic range that includes delicate nature effects and contemplative narration juxtaposed with ear-splitting battle sounds and Hans Zimmer’s powerful score. The 5.1 mix keeps all of these elements in precise balance, with perfect clarity in the dialogue and effective separation of effects across the surround channels.

Like Criterion’s earlier Days of Heaven release, The Thin Red Line illuminates Malick’s often mysterious process via a series of top-notch supplements. Toll contributes a commentary track in which he, production designer Jack Fisk, and producer Grant Hill provide entertaining stories about the making of the film. Further anecdotes from a performance perspective can be found in a 33-minute collection of interviews with Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Thomas Jane, and other actors, many of whom are also featured in an 18-minute documentary on the casting process. Perhaps the most compelling supplement on the Blu-ray is a 28-minute interview with editors Billy Weber, Leslie Jones, and Saar Klein, who offer a fascinating glimpse into the long and unusual postproduction phase of the picture. The disc also includes 14 minutes of deleted scenes, 15 minutes of vintage World War II newsreels, and a 19-minute interview with James Jones’s daughter Kaylie Jones that offers real insight into the creation of the autobiographical source material. Finally, there are two supplements related to the movie’s superb score: a 16-minute featurette on composer Hans Zimmer, and a seven-minute collection of the Melanesian chants used in the film. A theatrical trailer completes the exemplary array of extra features.

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