A look at the later work of filmmaker Terrence Malick with an eye towards a Toronto International Film Festival retrospective as posted to The Toronto Film Scene.

Originally published on The Toronto Film Scene – June 4, 2011.

At the time of its release, The Thin Red Line was unfairly categorized as “the other war film” … a film that had to lurk in the shadows of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan . However, true to form, it is a war film unlike most others in the history of the genre.

Malick is more concerned with the internal struggle of the soldiers themselves than he is with any tangible, physical enemy. In fact, the greatest physical enemy to the soldiers of Guadalcanal, as told here, is the jungle itself.

Instead, we’re faced with a giant cast of very scared young men less concerned with killing the Japanese and more preoccupied by the lives they’ve left behind, thoughts of desertion, and the realistic fear of blowing their own asses clean off.

The Thin Red Line is a film that creeps like a jungle vine around the notion of going to war without concerning itself with constant bullet-dodging. In fact, what seems to worry a lot of the grunts most is the absence of an ever-present enemy and the ability to wade through the jungle at times without feeling an enemy presence at all.

The film benefits from a retrospectively star-studded cast ““ though no one would have thought Adrien Brody or John C. Reilly to be much of a draw in 1998 ““ but the emotional weight is carried by Jim “Don’t call him Jesus” Caviezel and the life he’d left behind to go to war.

While it played to great reviews and slight box office at time of release, The Thin Red Line has aged exceptionally. It is arguably Malick’s magnum opus and ranks among both the best films of the 1990s and one of the genre’s singular visions.

After taking almost 20 years to ruminate before making this film, it was somewhat surprising to hear Malick back at work a couple years later on what would emerge in 2006 as The New World .

A take on the Pocahontas legend, it’s a film that I must personally admit didn’t much impact me upon first viewing five years ago. What is surprising, however, is how much I’ve thought of it since.

I’d never lent much thought to the idea of the undiscovered future, at least in terms of the one on the planet we inhabit, but what Malick succeeds at, once again, is using the impossibility of a natural extreme (in this case, the undiscovered continent for the English) to frame a seemingly domestic hardship.

Like the barren expanse of Badlands , the wheat fields of Days of Heaven and the rotting, pulsing jungle of The Thin Red Line , the untouched frontier is not just a backdrop for John Smith’s (Colin Farrell) pursuit of his child-bride but possibly the largest obstacle in determining his life’s direction.

Smith has to balance his pursuit of love with his obligation to King and Country and Malick makes the latter a driving force in yet another story of a man faced with disillusionment in the face of the choices he’s made.

There’s a lot in The New World , especially when it comes to man’s relationship to the frightening prospect of the raw, untouched natural expanse that sets the stage for his latest effort The Tree of Life , which is likely the reasoning behind the retrospective.

TIFF is not merely presenting a collection from one of the most unique artistic visions of the last half-century. It’s setting the stage for the next chapter.

Think of the Malick retrospective as a screening series akin to those that are currently running in advance of the Harry Potter finale. While it is the summation of everything that’s happened thus far it is also a presentation of all the elements that collide in what might be his grandest achievement, but is, at very least, his largest challenge to cinematic convention.