In 20 years, Malick’s aesthetic remains mostly intact. Yes, there’s a heavy reliance on handheld cameras which often results in a more intimate and personable space with the subjects and within their world. Most of what has changed is his storytelling techniques. In contrast to Badlands and Days of Heaven, films that used the interior of a female character as the conduit for the film’s observations, Malick’s approach has become broader and more driven by theme than by one character’s perception.
From the onset, the narration lets the audience know what questions the film is asking and the ideas it hopes to explore. It’s about the nature of war, strive, conflict and suffering. Most of the narration of the film is either a musing or strife or a longing for peace. Malick forgoes the elusiveness of what his films are about. It’s right there, up front, impossible to miss. This gives a film a bit more definition and direction, but a lot less mystery.
For instance, the film explores these themes through the philosophical conflict between Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) and Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn). Welsh holds that this world is all there is and that the world war is simply something a man has to weather, keep his head down, look out for himself and hope he makes it through it. Witt holds that there’s something beyond, another world, a place of peace. He becomes fascinated with the idea of what lies beyond death, reminiscing on the peaceful death of his own mother.
While the themes become more obvious, that doesn’t mean there’s less to discover. In fact, setting up the theme directly allows Malick to freely move between characters without losing the audience because the film isn’t about a particular soldier’s experience (as it would be in holding with his ‘70s style of storytelling), but a general sense of the experience of war. In this case, the backdrop is The Battle of Guadalcanal.
One of the most common complaints of viewers who expected a more traditional war film is how similar all the cast members look and that most of them aren’t developed. That’s the point. Not only does this once again give forefront to the themes as the primary conduit through which the audience journey’s through the film, but also develops a thematic thread of the idea of humanity being connected, or, as one character in the film says, everyone sharing “one big soul.”
Malick’s portrayals of violence, strife and evil in the world, while overwhelming and masterfully crafted in this film, are almost secondary to a sense of exploration of the idea of a spiritual existence, something beyond and above war. The film is more fascinated with the beauty of a leaf, an animal or a river than with the act of war-making. There’s a sense in which while nature is often cruel, there’s something beautiful about it, something that points to a transcendent existence.
This, in part, is part of the film’s anti-war rhetoric. While some critics argue there cannot be such a thing as an anti-war film due to film’s power to create a spectacle and entertain through the act of war-making, Malick’s film constantly subverts the spectacle and pleasure of a war film. It’s not till halfway through the film that the audience even sees the face of an enemy soldier. Up to that point, the Japanese soldiers are only briefly glimpsed in one scene. A soldier kills one of them (as the camera remains a far distance from the victim) and then ponders about the horrific nature of the act he just committed.
By refusing to show the enemy for so long, and constantly building a sense of tension and dread through long takes and Hans Zimmer’s tragic, slow building score, the film constantly frames the acts of war as horror. Issues of patriotic duty and nationalism are unspoken. In their place is the petty quest for a promotion by Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte) and a general cynicism that war is either a squabble over property or misguided strife between brothers.
By the end of the film, nothing is gained. The film only focuses on the loss, the loss of feeling, the loss of a relationship, the loss of humanity and the most tragic loss of life. In those final moments the film mulls about the mystery of what lies beyond death, if anything, and the general sense of emptiness. When one private near the end talks about how he’s seen the worst life can bring him, his optimism for the rest of life is undercut by the general sense that something has been lost, that humanity’s strife comes at a price that can’t be completely understood in this life.
As cynical as that sounds, it’s tinged with a bittersweet notion, the idea that maybe there is something else, another way, or another world like Witt expresses. And perhaps in this life there’s still a way to, as one character puts it, “taste the glory.” Like the final frame of the film, it’s unclear what lies beyond, but it’s clear that Malick yearns for another world, a world better and more complete than ours.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing