For a certain core group of patient, passionate cinephiles, The New World (New Line), Terrence Malick’s retelling of the story of the Jamestown settlement, was already a major movie event before it even hit screens last Christmas. (Since withdrawn for a recut by the director, the movie reopens nationwide today in slightly shortened form.) Malick began his career with two films of an almost Rimbaudian purity and perfection: Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978). These movies, both of them lyrical reflections on doomed love against the backdrop of a cruel (but lushly filmed) nature, made Malick’s name as a poetic and visionary director, on par with Stanley Kubrick or Francis Ford Coppola.
But post-Days of Heaven, Malick dropped out of sight. He refuses to be photographed, hasn’t given a real press interview in more than 30 years, and fields whatever questions do cross his path with a vague, “Uh, I guess I don’t want to talk about that.” The Thin Red Line (1998), Malick’s return to filmmaking after 20 years, was generally received as a failure, but it was a fascinating one—a World War II epic that eschewed conventional plot and character in favor of endless nature shots and overlapping, dreamy voice-overs. “Why does nature contend with itself?” asked an off-screen Jim Caviezel in the opening frames, over an image of tree-suffocating vines. No doubt a less compelling question to most soldiers than, “Where’s my body armor?” but that obliqueness was part of Malick’s point—to step back from the immediacy of battle and ponder the strangeness of war itself.
The New World takes a shopworn American myth—the first encounter of settlers and Indians at Jamestown, and the romance between Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) and Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell)—and runs it through the Malick-izer, making it feel rich, strange, and new. In so doing, the film takes wild liberties with historical accuracy. Most serious scholars now dispute the notion that the Indian girl and the English adventurer were sexually involved, though Smith’s memoirs do relate how she begged her father, the tribal chief Powhatan, to spare his life after his capture. But the Smith/Pocahontas affair is like the erotic equivalent of the Thanksgiving story: It is true as a metaphor, a condensation of fantasies about colonization and first contact.
For all this abstract talk of metaphor, the experience of watching The New World is primarily a sensory one. There’s the sound of wind in marsh grass; a haunting Mozart piano concerto that becomes the lovers’ theme song; the play of light on water; and the endlessly interesting physiognomy of Kilcher, a gorgeous teenage actress of Swiss/Peruvian descent. In her early love scenes with Farrell, Kilcher is playful and incandescent, a kid with a handsome new toy; later, after her move to Jamestown, she conveys through her rigid gait alone the indignities of assimilation.
The argument could be made that Kilcher’s role, and the film’s representation of Native Americans in general, plays into idealizing stereotypes of the unspoiled Indian. Farrell muses in voice-over that the “naturals” are “gentle, faithful, loving, lacking in all guile and trickery.” But Malick is not a documentarian or a cultural-studies historian; he’s a storyteller, and I would argue that part of the story he’s trying to tell is about how the process of miscegenation inevitably invites us to construct such Edenic myths. Malick is obsessed with Eden or, perhaps more precisely, obsessed with America’s obsession with it. All of his films contain these paradisiacal, usually erotic interludes. But even as the lovers cavort in their makeshift treehouses or smooch by the river, they realize that their idyll is fragile, threatened by the imminent reality of work, or winter, or war.
The New World slows down in its second half, when John Smith sails on to seek the East Indies, and Pocahontas, believing him dead, moves to the English colony and marries a dull but loving fur trader (Christian Bale). The final scenes, documenting her trip to England and presentation to the court as a “princess of the New World,” struck me as too hagiographic, straight out of a standard-issue biopic. But the first hour of the film is laden with visual and auditory treats, including some wonderful actors in small parts. There’s Christopher Plummer as the leader of the expedition from England, and David Thewlis, who was born to play a humorless, sadistic Puritan.
In her review of The Thin Red Line in 1998, Janet Maslin spoke of the “innate momentousness” of Malick’s films. A less generous phrase might be “innate portentousness.” The New World is rife with voice-over lines that are as likely to elicit giggles as they are earnest chin-scratching. Even the movie’s opening invocation, spoken by Pocahontas (“Come, spirit. Help us sing the story of our land.”) may strike some as a pretentiously literary conceit, echoing the first lines of a Homeric epic. But Malick’s signature technique is light-years away from the usual, expository Hollywood voice-over, which tends to spell out in drearily explicit prose whatever the screenwriter is too lazy to convey through other means. The lyrical musings of Malick’s characters do just the opposite: They burrow deeper into questions that the cinematography and sound design are already asking. It makes sense that Malick never finished his thesis in philosophy at Oxford. In a way, he’s still writing it, using his films as scratchpads to work through questions like the one John Smith poses to himself, early in the film: “What voice is this that speaks within me, guides me toward the best?” The New World isn’t Terrence Malick’s best, but it’s guiding him in the right direction.