From this week's Scene:
We still haven’t gotten over showing up for Malick’s debut Badlands two weeks ago, expecting the same 12 people who turned out several years back when we saw it at The Belcourt — only to find a line down the block and 200 more people inside. So it’ll be fascinating to hear the reaction to this, the most polarizing and problematic of Malick’s films — an overwhelmingly ambitious treatise on combat that emerges as a work of cinematic war poetry. (The original five-to-six-hour cut, whose cutting-room floor casualties include Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, Viggo Mortensen, Martin Sheen and Mickey Rourke, is one of modern cinema’s holy grails.)
Adapting James Jones’ novel about the fighting at Guadalcanal in World War II, Malick clears away the bomber-squadron exposition and other claptrap we expect from war films. What remains is shockingly unfamiliar — men we don’t know, in a world we’ve never seen, fighting for reasons we haven’t been told. There is no plot, no main character, no crucial mission, just hallucinatory images of corruption and devastation, above which floats a disembodied consciousness that links all brothers in arms. Heaven peeks through the treetops, scattering light on scorched earth soaked with blood.
It sounds pretentious as hell, and at a public screening before it came out in 1998, a man kicked his seat behind me the moment the movie ended and pronounced it “the worst goddamn movie I’ve ever seen.” But there are images here as haunting and immaculately crafted as anything you’ve ever seen on film. The once-in-a-lifetime cast — which includes Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Adrien Brody, John Cusack, Elias Koteas, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Jared Leto, and virtual cameos by George Clooney and John Travolta — gives remarkable performances; Nolte, Penn, Cusack and Harrelson in particular have scarcely been better. Even if you hate it, it’s worth seeing, and worthy of respect.