Photo by Merie Wallace,SMPSP/New Line Productions
I thought it was a dream, what we knew in the forest. It’s the only truth.

—dialogue from The New World

The stars of the new Terrence Malick picture,
The New World — regular members of his stock company all — are tall
grass blowing in the wind, sunlight reflected off still waters and crickets
chirping at dusk. And no, those aren’t the names of the Powhatan Indians
who populate this story of the 17th-century explorer John Smith, the woman called
Pocahontas and America itself in its infancy. Malick is an anomaly — the
Hollywood director who finds greater stimulation in nature than inside a CG
paint box, who prefers green to green screens. And like every movie he has made
over the last 32 years (all three of them), this one exudes a rapturous, sensual
beauty. Discussing The New World after the screening, a friend proposed that
Malick’s imagery makes you want to run up and touch the screen. But no,
that’s not quite right; it’s more like the images are touching you.
It would seem easy to dismiss Malick (as many have) as the maker of pretty pictures,
but the beauty in Malick’s work is more than skin deep. It’s as
though we’re being transported to a place before time began, or at least
before we were first cast out of that proverbial garden. Which is precisely
the point. No matter their official subjects, Malick’s first three movies
(Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line)
were all mournful paeans to paradises lost, innocences violated and savageries
tamed. The New World is no exception, only this time the Eden in question
is literally America, and the locust in her wheat field is none other than the
imperialist invader. Had Malick made this film in the 1970s, when he originally
wrote it, it doubtless would have been seen as some kind of response to a certain
misbegotten American military action in the East. Three decades on, the more
things change, the more they stay the same.
So I wish The New World were better. Certainly, it is not without its glories:
The early scenes, in which Smith (Colin Farrell) and the three ships commissioned
by the London Virginia Company arrive on the shores of the James River to the
stirrings of Wagner on the soundtrack, have a primitivistic intensity; we feel
as though we, like Smith (and Malick for that matter), are seeing this land
for the first time, each blade of grass distinct from the next, each patch of
sky a unique shade of blue. Then “the naturals” appear in their
shimmering brown skins, as exotic to the British as the British are to them.
It’s intoxicating stuff, not least because, with the exception of a few
passages of voice-over narration, hardly a line of dialogue is spoken. The British
and the Indians can’t speak, of course — at least not to each other
— but it’s something more than that. Malick seems to have grown
fatigued of words, to believe that the deepest feelings in cinema might be expressed
some other way. Yet where the best films of Malick and of those directors driven
by similar ambitions — Claire Denis, Abbas Kiarostami and Carroll Ballard
to name just three — strike a delicate balance between the poetic and
the prosaic, The New World is a movie less interested in expanding the boundaries
of narrative cinema than in forsaking them.
Though I’ve admired Malick’s previous films, I’ve never fully
bought into the argument — having as much to do with the years in which
he wasn’t making movies as those when he was — that he’s some
kind of genius. If nothing else, The New World offers compelling evidence
that Malick himself may have succumbed to the hype. The movie is less a historical
drama punctuated by ecstatic landscapes than a stunning landscape film that
pauses every once in a while to tell a story. And whenever it does, it’s
as if a giant vacuum comes along and sucks all the life out of the picture.
Of course, there were indications as far back as Days of Heaven that
he might be a better director of insects than of actors, but The New World
is the first of Malick’s movies in which the dialogue scenes are completely
inert; it’s as if he can’t be bothered. The scenes feel like concessions
to the studio, for what Malick really seems to want to do is to make an abstract
study of figures and environments, like the films of the experimental filmmakers
James Benning and Peter Hutton. If he could, he’d just as soon do without
things like characters and plot, and The New World would probably be
a more successful movie for it.
A lot happens in The New World: Smith and a party of his men set out
to meet with the feared Powhatan chief (August Schellenberg) and are ambushed
en route; those who stay behind to build the colony that will become Jamestown
are ravaged by starvation and disease; eventually, more settlers arrive and
civilization rears its ugly head. But the only thing Malick shows much interest
in is the blossoming relationship between Smith and the daughter of the Powhatan
chief, Pocahontas (14-year-old Q’orianka Kilcher), who saves Smith from
imminent execution and spends most of the movie’s next hour frolicking
with him in the forest and teaching him to paint with all the colors of the
wind. The rest of the characters scarcely possess names, let alone personalities,
and the movie feels like a particularly cruel betrayal of the actors who have
dutifully followed Malick up the river and into the jungle — some of whom
(like Ben Chaplin, Noah Taylor and Brian F. O’Byrne) have been reduced
to blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos à la Adrien Brody in The
Thin Red Line
, while others (like Christian Bale, who makes a third-act
entrance as Pocahontas’ husband-to-be, John Rolfe) seem utterly bewildered
about their purpose in being there.
Though the famous “romance” between Smith and Pocahontas (who was
likely no more than 12 years old at the time) is more fiction than fact, it’s
easy to see why Malick has chosen to go in that direction. Malick’s Pocahontas
is more than just another in his gallery of wide-eyed virginal innocents (including
Sissy Spacek in Badlands and Linda Manz in Days of Heaven)
— she’s Mother Earth herself, and as played by the extraordinary
newcomer Kilcher, she seems the embodiment of all that is pure and good about
the natural world. As lissome as the grass itself, she could be Malick’s
dream woman. And Smith, for all his benevolent intentions, is her despoiler.
Just one week on from Peter Jackson’s behemoth, this is King Kong all
over again, only with the gender roles reversed.
Historical fidelity notwithstanding, the scheme of The New World is all too
easy to read: that Pocahontas will become a pawn in the increasingly violent
territorial battles between the Indians and the British. That she will, like
America herself, become domesticated — her sun-kissed body bound up in
a corset, her bare feet squeezed awkwardly into high heels — and paraded
before all of England as an exotic offering. That she will die a symbolic death
far from her native land. Well before The New World’s two-and-one-half
hours are up, Malick’s tree-hugging reveries have become suffocating,
no matter the unquestionable tastefulness with which they’re rendered
— more painterly vistas, more Wagner (and a little Mozart, too), ravishing
re-creations of 17th-century London. Surely, only a Philistine could find any
fault with this, or believe, perchance, that Malick’s famous poetic beauty
had turned poetically fatal.
THE NEW WORLD | Written and directed by TERRENCE MALICK | Produced
by SARAH GREEN | Released by New Line Cinema | At ArcLight and AMC Century 15