A beautiful, very cinematic meditation on what drives conflict between humans, the imbalance between humankind and nature, and whether conflict and suffering is inherent to the natural world or some specific evil of humanity.
The way the film flits around characters, the way some pop in and out or die unceremoniously, is so non-Hollywood, but a striking representation of the nature of warfare of the time. The bigger picture about humanity and nature is more important than individual character arcs, so it would seem in this film.
Individual sequences are very strong, from the staging of battles (some captivating tracking shots), painful letters from home (the performances hit me pretty hard there), Hans Zimmer’s stunning score, but it’s the greater concept of the film that works best, that commitment to examining where nature ends and “human nature” begins, if there is such a point, even when it flies in the face of conventional film-making and narrative, that works so well for me personally.
Is nature inherently disharmonious, and the wars humans fight just a logical extension to that? Do the vines swarming over trees, the hunt of predators after prey, the gore and pain and senselessness of nature mean that our own warfare is “okay”, just part of a greater natural existence? Or is there some sort of greater harmony to nature that humans killing each other violates? As Pvt. Witt believes, are we all part of a greater whole, that other world that is nature? Is killing each other when we’re all part of that same greater being tragic nonsense then? How do humans make sense of the fact we’re all barrelling towards death one way or another? These aren’t easy topics, or the typical questions a film set in a war may ask, but taking the film as a semi-spiritual exploration of these concepts rather than a “war film” makes for a better, even fantastic, experience, to my mind.
Malick makes his clearest statement through this narration, from Pvt. Train, “This great evil, where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might’ve known? Does our ruin benefit the earth, does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?”.
It’s fantastic, cinematic film-making, an immensely skilled cast, brilliant production values, a hugely memorable score, and ambitious thematic work. A very compelling film. I give it four and a half trees, and a grenade.