Whole ‘New World’

Kyle Smith

While the other directors of his generation have faded into compromising commercial projects and failed attempts at reinvention, Terrence Malick soldiers on as if nothing’s changed in the 30-plus years since Badlands. His The New World is New Hollywood for the Aughts, not so much a middle finger toward the middling films that open in 1500-plus theaters each week as a disaffected shrug. It’s becoming clear that the ideal metaphor for Malick’s strange career (a Texas-born Harvard graduate, Rhodes scholar, and one-time philosopher) is the post-Spielbergian disappointment that was The Thin Red Line – following Spielberg’s officially sanctioned masterpiece with a predictably impressionist view of war pissed off millions who were expecting Saving Private Ryan: Reloaded. The New World aims to do the same.

Perhaps The New World feels like a remnant of the Hollywood Renaissance because it bucks everything about big-budget movies ( more specifically, awards-season movies). After all, the early-17th century hasn’t exactly been a hotbed for the box office, and “explorer” movies flop about as often as they’re made- if that makes sense. With his telling of the Pocahontas/John Smith story, Malick resurrects one of the assumed minutiae of first-grade history into an epochal contemplation on life, love, war, nature and history.

Malick is claustrophobic almost to a fault, and his movie is afraid to go anywhere with walls. It’s no small feat that this is the most naturalistic of his movies, anchored by the astonishing rendering of Jamestown. Whereas a film like Brokeback Mountain forgoes the beauty of the West for tents, wide-angle shots and melodrama, Malick embraces everything about disgusting Virginian swamps.

Malick’s “poetic” style is in full effect here, though I’m dubious about what constitutes his poetry. The use of inner monologues and slow tracking shots beckons the easy label, but The New World isn’t a poem. It’s history written not by lightning, but by the sunlight – soft, innate and earthly. The opening credits are a map of coastal Virginia with tributaries and rivers drawing themselves in as they’re discovered, and the image returns during the end credits. The permanence of the map is about the only concrete historical evidence in the film. I don’t even think Pocahontas’ or John Rolfe’s names are ever mentioned.

History, in The New World, is not about politics or war, but place. In lesser hands, Jamestown would be a precursor of early jingoism, full of eager pilgrims who seek freedom and independence. Instead, it’s a miserable, decrepit place – overcast and void of resources. Through the colony and the surrounding woods, one gets the eerie feeling of actually being there, though not in any theme park ride sense. Everything in the film is treated with a noted reverence, from the magic-hour lighting to the sound design to the hazy performances.

The acting in The New World seems almost accidental. The best attributes of Colin Farrell – namely, that confused look that people usually mistake for sexiness – are harnessed here; his performance is nothing but empty glances and sad eyes. My description doesn’t do it justice; let’s just say that Farrell does good to the Smith name. Q’Orianka Kilcher, who, one senses, is an even worse actor than Farrell, is still fantastic as the Indian princess. Much has been made of Kilcher’s age (she was 14 during production), but in the wrong sense. She is the central figure in The New World’s Powhatan tribe, who are meticulously rendered here; her young age is both historically accurate and metaphorically necessary. If it’s about anything, The New World documents the terrible compromise of the American Indian in heartbreaking fashion: the kindness of the young, beautiful Pocahontas welcomes the Europeans, and when her father disowns her, its hard to sympathize with the princess.

Malick stages his battle sequence much like the raid in The Thin Red Line, and it’s just as powerful. His fight scenes are unique in that they avoid wide shots of massive armies and battle in favor of tighter point-of-view shots that would “put one in the middle of the battle” (a la Ryan) if he didn’t cut out of them every few seconds. They’re not all that different from the delicate love scenes between Pocahontas and Smith, which echo the romance in Malick’s Days of Heaven.

Malick has now made four movies in 33 years and is hailed as a genius. As much as I want to refrain from coronating him, it’s difficult to not admire The New World. Too often, mainstream cinema limits itself to narratives that make complete sense, to stories that value history over art (or vice versa), to uninteresting fluff or overwrought drama. Floating through The New World will either put you to sleep or inspire you.

Communications senior Kyle Smith is the PLAY film columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]