If you ever want to observe the chasm that separates cinephiles and more reserved film fans, just mention the name Terrence Malick and note the vastly different reactions; amongst the populace he is a non-entity, though many have undoubtedly seen at least one—if not two, three, or all four—of his films. But amongst cinephiles he’s something of a legend; his name conjures up the kind of awe and wonder you might evoke if you mentioned the name James Joyce or T.S. Eliot amongst English professors. Like both Eliot and Joyce, Malick is also known for being anti-prolific—though his four films in a span of thirty years makes Eliot’s ten poetry collections in twenty-eight years and Joyce’s eight publications look downright fecund. But what Malick lacks in quantity he makes up for in quality. Indeed, his first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven, are widely considered cinematic masterpieces, and many (like myself) would include The Thin Red Line in that masterpiece class as well.
In 2005 it’s been seven years since Malick released his last film (a mere trifle compared to the twenty years between ‘78’s Days of Heaven and ‘98’s The Thin Red Line), and he’s embarked on a new project. This time, it’s an epic historical drama based on the settling of Jamestown and the romance between Pocahontas (newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher) and Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrel). After arriving in America, Smith and his fellow Englishmen are in a pitiful condition and hope they can befriend the natives and erect a temporary settlement. Capt. Newport (Christopher Plummer) heads back to England to bring back supplies and food, while Smith tries to get in good with the natives and is unexpectedly captured. After Pocahontas saves his life, the two become close and Smith finds himself more at home with the Algonquin tribe than with his own struggling people.
The film almost immediately puts to rest any doubts about Malick’s auteurist hallmarks being present; The New World is every bit as visually astonishing and as poetic as Malick’s other output. His trademark voice-over, which distinctively finds his characters pondering metaphysical and existential themes, introduces the film itself. As with Malick’s other films, poetic ellipticism is emphasized over narrative linearity or dramatic propulsion. The New World is a film full of impressionistic imagery, tactile art design, organic sounds and transcendent music courtesy of James Horner as well as carefully selected pieces by Wagner, Mozart and a few others. The film could almost be seen as an amalgamation of Malick’s other films: taking the romantic “return to nature” of Badlands, the aesthetic sensibility of Days of Heaven, and the war & death theme of The Thin Red Line.
Much like with Malick’s other work, while it’s possible to describe his techniques, any such description belies the actual experiencing of them. This may be Malick’s most meditative film; Carrie Rickey of The Philadelphia Inquirer described it in this way: “Not since Kubrick’s 2001_… has a movie been so breathtakingly beautiful and so narratively abstract.” While the comparison to Kubrick and even _2001 is apt, I think Rickey chose the wrong element—the narrative abstraction—to make the comparison with. If The New World and 2001 are alike then it’s in their shared sense of awe at life, but while Kubrick turned his awe towards the cosmos and man’s relationship with its origins and tools, Malick turned his awe towards history and man’s relationship with nature and his fellow man.
If Malick also shares Kubrick’s sense of visual beauty, their operative modes are complete opposites; Kubrick was the precisely formal classical composer, while Malick is the loosely impressionistic jazz improviser. The entire cast and crew speak of Malick’s method in a making-of documentary, describing how he demanded not just historical accuracy, but complete 360-degrees of mobile freedom in which he could point his camera at anything at any time and record. While Kubrick carefully constructed his worlds in front of the camera, Malick immerses himself and his crew into their surroundings and makes nature his palette. This allows Malick to employ his counter-theoretical editing style, which is able to jump-cut in continuity, break scenes for narratively pointless inserts, and allows for a pacing that’s fluid and dreamlike rather than highly structured.
But that same technique that has made Malick a hero amongst cinephiles, critics and film scholars has also made him an enemy amongst many general film fans who dislike his de-emphasis on characters and story. The New World certainly isn’t different in this respect, and although it’s nowhere as abstract as 2001 (as Rickey suggests), it isn’t quite accessible either. Malick, like many of the great Eastern auteurs (who are perhaps his spiritual cousins in aesthetic theories, if not in location), doesn’t abide by traditional Western storytelling techniques built around three-act screenplays that follow a pattern. Instead, Malick frequently leaps forward in time in the span of a single cut, with only the seasons denoting the change in time. Pocahontas goes from first learning English in one scene, to being fluent in it the next. All of this combines with a typical lack of overt conflict and it’s not difficult to see where the accusations of “plotless” and “dull characters” come from.
But if The New World is somewhat saved from the latter it’s thanks to the radiant light emanating from newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher who makes for a beguiling Pocahontas. Kilcher is one of those actors who needs little more than her mere presence—a look, a gesture, a sound—to convince you of her genuine spirit. She makes for not just a convincing Pocahontas, but as a convincing and emotionally anchored center for the film. Through her, Malick puts a twist on the concept of “The New World”; instead of it denoting the English discovery of the West, it more accurately refers to Kilcher’s discovery of the East. Both Colin Farrel and (later on) Christian Bale—who plays John Rolfe, Pocahontas’ eventual husband—turn in solid and sympathetic performances, but their characters are too lightly sketched to make as big of an impact as they should or that they’re capable of having.
The inevitable criticisms of the film being yet another adaptation of the Pocahontas-John Smith-“New World” story, perhaps being another needless epic in the wake of Dances With Wolves, are sidestepped by (apart from Malick’s artistry) its authenticity. It was shot in Virginia, just a few miles from where the original settlers landed, and Malick insisted on having the sets built with only the resources that would have been available at that time in that location. The designs were based on the discoveries of archaeological specialists who were also invited to the set. The film even resurrected the dead language of Algonquin and spent extensive time searching for and casting Native Americans descended from the tribe. The result is a film that doesn’t merely attempt to recreate a rough analog of its period, but a film that feels like a genuine time capsule of that place at that time in history.
However, by this point, even I may have to admit that Malick’s distinctive traits occasionally wear thin. The voice-over worked better in his three previous films but quite often seems out of place and arbitrary here; perhaps because you wouldn’t expect a character like John Smith who’s struggling to survive to be so introspective. It fit better in The Thin Red Line if only because the voice-over felt more divorced from the events, as if looking back on them. But The New World also has an emotional weight that subtly builds as the film progresses, and if it takes longer to work its magic than Malick’s other films, in the end one’s patience will likely be rewarded.
The visuals, while still incredibly strong, can’t quite match the sheer beauty of Days of Heaven, the elegiac tone of Badlands or the terrifying power of The Thin Red Line, and its best moments seem far too fleeting and fragmentary (a criticism that might fit the entire film, actually). The length proves more of a detriment than a strength as it forces Malick into repetitions that add nothing to the film; I lost count of how many scenes we have with Smith and Pocahontas frolicking and flirting in nature. Finally, while the original score by James Horner is solid (if not spectacular), the Mozart piece (the adagio from his #23 Piano Concerto) doesn’t quite fit, and the Wagner overture fairs only a little better.
If I had to make a judgment as to where The New World qualitatively fits in Malick’s oeuvre I’d say it’s probably his weakest; yet, if it is, it’s all the more remarkable because, despite the film’s flaws, it’s still an amazing achievement and an excellent work of cinematic art. Perhaps we can’t blame those average film fans for not knowing Malick’s name; after all, they lose interest in pop stars, actors or directors if they aren’t constantly in the news either for producing something new or for getting into trouble. Those who knew Malick from his ’70s films welcomed him with open arms 20 years later, and The New World is an equally welcome entry into his canon. Perhaps the most acute comparison between Malick and Kubrick isn’t in their style or output, but in the fact that the two have achieved something few directors ever have, and that’s in making each new release an event unto itself. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait 20 years for that event ever again.