For an example of Blu-ray technology at its best – as well as the opportunity to rediscover an overlooked masterpiece – check out the new disc of Terrence Malick’s World War II meditation The Thin Red Line (Criterion Collection, $40, also on DVD, in stores Tuesday) and get ready to scrape your jaw off the floor.
Malick is, among other things, a visual poet, and the Criterion Blu-ray captures every blood-stained blade of grass and bullet-riddled tree leaf with such pristine clarity, those newfangled 3D TVs suddenly seem superfluous. When you select the movie on the Blu-ray’s menu, a note pops up from Malick suggesting you turn up the volume on your receiver, because the sound mix is so densely layered. But the DTS-HD Master Audio track on the disc is so powerful, one of the explosions blew out my left speaker, so heed Malick’s advice with caution.
Although The Thin Red Line was nominated for seven Oscars and won a slew of other awards for Malick and cinematographer John Toll, it didn’t attract a wide theatrical audience in 1998 (people flocked instead to the much more accessible Saving Private Ryan, released that same year). Watching the film again today feels like uncovering a lost classic – one that has aged particularly well. Although there are a couple of cameos that still distract (George Clooney’s popping up in the last five minutes remains a bad idea), the florid voiceover narration revealing the characters’ thoughts, along with the unusual structure of the script, combine to make a beautiful and eloquent tone poem.
Maybe I’m just older – I wasn’t crazy about The Thin Red Line the first time I saw it – but watching it today is a stirring, haunting experience, one that’s unlikely to be matched by any other war picture you’ve ever seen. Malick is the J.D. Salinger of filmmakers – he hasn’t granted an interview or talked directly about his work in decades – but the Criterion disc is replete with extras that more than fill the void left by his absence. A half-hour documentary features new interviews with cast members Sean Penn, James Caviezel, Elias Koteas and others talking about Malick’s work habits and their experiences on the set.
Another 20-minute featurette is an interview with casting director Dianne Critended, who talks about how every young actor in Hollywood auditioned for a role in the film and includes test footage of several famous faces who didn’t make the cut (Neil Patrick Harris!). Editors Leslie Jones, Saar Klein and Billy Webb discuss the daunting task of whittling down the reams of footage Malick shot into a manageable length in a 30-minute featurette (the first cut of the movie ran a whopping five hours). They also discuss how Malick decided to make Caviezel’s character the center of the film, leaving poor Adrien Brody, who was originally supposed to star, as a minor supporting character. The Thin Red Line is so overcrowded with actors that if you don’t watch carefully, you may not even spot John Cusack.
Other extras include 15 minutes of deleted scenes; an interview with Kaylie Jones, daughter of novelist James Jones (whose book inspired the film); newsreel footage of the Guadacanal battles depicted in the movie, and an informative commentary track with cinematographer Toll, production designer Jack Fisk and producer Grant Hill, who go into exhaustive detail about the making of the picture. Their presence is not quite the same as listening to Malick, but they come close enough.