The Thin Red Line and The End of Violence (review)

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Human Nature

It’s television’s fault. No, it’s the Internet. Or our crumbling schools. Or broken families. Or drugs. Or too much sugar in our diets. Or the full moon.

The truth of it is, the first protohumanoid to see a stick as a tool probably used it to bash some other unsuspecting guy over the head. Humans are violent. There’s no way around that fact. It’s in our genes. You can refuse your toddler toy guns — he’ll just mime one with his thumb and forefinger anyway.

Want more proof of our inherent savagery? Look how popular intensely violent movies are (Armageddon, a movie about blowing things up and punching people, was the highest grossing movie in 1998). They must fulfill some need deep in our amoral hindbrains. Of course, the other tack films take is pondering the meaning of it all. Are we doomed to destroy ourselves? How can we prevent it?
Better to light a candle…
As The Thin Red Line opens, Pvt. Witt (Ralph Fiennes lookalike Jim Caviezel) is AWOL in paradise. He’s smack in the middle of the ravaged Pacific during WWII, and yet he’s managed to find a piece of heaven, living with a peaceful native tribe on a little island. Some of the women and kids are a bit afraid of him — he “looks army.” But mostly, this is Eden.

His infantry company picks him up soon enough, and he’s off with them to take the island of Guadalcanal from the Japs. We barely get to know the guys thrown up on the beach and left to capture this island. Characterization consists of things like one grunt reveling in the fact that he can kill a man, if he’s the enemy, and no one can touch him for it; or another soldier’s gauzy memories of his beautiful wife back at home. Even soldiers played by brand-name actors like John Cusack and Woody Harrelson are hardly introduced before they disappear again. Obviously, we’re not meant to concern ourselves too much with the characters — it’s the “larger issue” we should think about.

What is director Terrence Malick‘s “larger issue”? “Why does nature vie with itself, the land contend with the sea?” one soldier wonders in one of the many pretentiously poetic voiceovers that riddle this long, boring film. At first glance, Malick seems to be placing human brutality completely within the scope of natural things. But the rest of the film follows a contradictory and faulty motif: war as an abomination on nature.

First Malick deifies the natural world: a field of grass is preternaturally green, a soldier strokes a leaf reverently, the camera gazes aloft through sun-dappled trees, a soldier swims with native children in gorgeously blue ocean waters. Then the film suggests that all these men who “look army” are defacing this pristine beauty with their presence and their war: a native man walks past a platoon of marching soldiers without a glance their way, as if they are beneath his notice; the camera lingers on the death throes of a baby bird burned in an explosion; a soldier takes a potshot at another bird startled into flight; a butterfly flutters through a battle.

To further emphasize this human disjoint from nature, religion enters the argument. One soldier laments that “the only thing permanent is death and the Lord,” the god of humans, of course, whose supposed existence somehow elevates us above nature. Pvt. Witt is a big believer in eternity; he smiles as one of his comrades dies because he “knows” the dying man is going to his immortality. First Sgt. Edward Welsh (a nicely modulated Sean Penn) is the lone voice of rationality (what idealists call cynicism). “There’s no other world,” he says, “just this rock,” but no one seems to pay him much heed.

And if there was any question that we’re meant to see human violence as some consequence of advanced technology or some lose of innocence, consider this: When Witt returns to his pet native tribe at the end of the film, they’ve changed, presumably because of their contact with him. Men squabble with each other; a child is covered with sores and flies; women run and hide when they see him. The lesson is simple: The white man with his guns brings discord, disease, and fear to paradise. More turgid voiceovers as the film wraps up tell the whole story: “This great evil, where’s it come from? How did it steal into the world, what seed, what root did it grow from?… Is this darkness in you too?”

The answer to that last question is Yes, it’s in all of us. The “darkness” didn’t “steal into the world” — it’s an inextricable part of nature. Chimps war; dolphins rape. Humans are an inextricable part of nature — our big brains, opposable thumbs and capacity for speech merely make us very efficient at waging the war we’re hardwired for. That the belief that we are somehow raised above nature is a common one makes it no less false. We are tribal, territorial, brutal, characteristics that enabled us to survive in the harsh world we evolved in. That these are cold facts doesn’t mean that we have to like them, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want to change things. But unless we start with the knowledge that this is an inherent part of us, not something gone wrong, we’re doomed to false solutions. Trading in our televisions and jeans for bamboo huts and loincloths is not going to change what we are. That a small, small minority of human societies are peaceful is proof than we can overcome nature, not that peacefulness is our nature.

“How do we lose the good that is given us?” one soldier wonders. No good is given to us. We have to find it for ourselves.

Who watches the watchers?
Where The Thin Red Line wrings its hands over the root of all evil, The End of Violence contents itself with merely brooding over how to delimit its subject matter. “Define violence,” one character keeps asking of others, and never gets a satisfactory answer.

Mike Max (Bill Pullman, deliciously smarmy) is a producer of action movies who stumbles across some privileged information about a secret government project to eliminate violence through blanket surveillance. We don’t learn that that’s what’s going on till the end of the film, but it spoils nothing to tell you that now. The End of Violence isn’t about solving a mystery or figuring out whodunnit. Director Wim Wenders — who started making 21st-century movies with 1991’s ambitious and brilliant Until the End of the World — is more interested in exploring our surveillance society and wondering if it’s even possible to end violence.

Ray Bering (Gabriel Byrne from The Man in the Iron Mask) is a former NASA geek who’s setting up the surveillance project in Los Angeles, ironically headquartered at the Griffith Park Observatory, high above L.A. — a facility dedicated to looking up at the sky now looks down upon the city. Security cameras dot the city, controlled from Griffith Park. Ray spends his days peering in windows and spying on people walking the streets. Even Ray himself is under surveillance from his superiors. It’s Truman World.

But as if to tweak our noses with our own bloodlust, the hideously violent murders that set off the events of the film go unwitnessed except by a security camera, and all we get to see of them is a grainy, green-tinged night-vision video — no guts, no blood, just a shadow play. Aha! Wenders seems to say. You like watching violence, don’t you? You want to see what happened in every gory detail. How can we possibly eliminate this desire so deep within us?

And what’s more, Wenders offers, not all violence can be witnessed. Isn’t Mike’s emotional neglect of his wife (Michael‘s Andie MacDowell) a kind of violence? How can a camera capture that? Crushing someone’s dreams is a kind of brutality — how can you see a weapon of words? The South American woman who works for the surveillance project was a victim of political violence in her home country — the insidious suggestion is that the crimes of those in power can never be stamped out. Indeed, it appears that those behind the secret project are also responsible for the crime captured on its own cameras — will whoever controls such a surveillance system be able to get away, literally, with murder?

The End of Violence even proposes that there are some beneficial kinds of surveillance, such as traffic reports or keeping an eye out for an elderly parent. Even watching actors at work is a brand of surveillance. Why do we accept a certain amount of observation? Where do we draw the line?

Thoughtful and contemplative, The End of Violence will not be to everyone’s taste. It’s practically an antimovie, almost plotless, self-referential, and unsettling. It refuses to wrap up neatly or comfortingly. But it’s one of the most provocative films in years.

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The Thin Red Line
viewed at a public multiplex screenings

The End of Violence
viewed at home on a small screen

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