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More Than Just a Pretty Picture

The subtle greatness of Terrence Malick’s The New World.

Talking animals are an obvious point of difference between a live-action epic and a Disney animated movie, but in the case of Pocahontas and Terrence Malick’s underrated The New World, it’s instructive to compare raccoons. In Pocahontas, the fetching Native American heartbreaker is attended throughout by Meeko, a raccoon who mugs and squawks but—unlike the typical furry sidekick—never utters a cute bon mot. Meeko is pure, outside of language. He’s more of a Rousseauian “natural” than Pocahontas, who, when she addresses him or breaks into song (“What I love about rivers …”), deploys the Queen’s English.

When a raccoon shows up in the third act of TheNew World,we’re in developed London. Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) has been delivered by her husband, a Virginia tobacco entrepreneur, before an audience with King James. She circles the room, gawking at the pasty faces that gawk back at her. And then she kneels to study something. It’s a raccoon sitting in a wire cage. Malick cuts almost immediately from this image to the next, but briefly, from the slightest change of expression in her smile, we understand that, to these courtiers, she and the raccoon are equals: exotic souvenirs, here to advertise the appeal of investing in the startup colony.

It’s with punctuated moments like this that The New World acknowledges the reality of European colonial history. But these subtle, measured gestures didn’t add up to the heavy-handed PC revisionism that some people wanted. In fact, The New World’s anemic box-office numbers suggest that it wasn’t a movie anyone very much wanted—except, that is, the small but devoted cult of Malickites.

Released last December to lukewarm reviews, The New World was abruptly pulled from theaters by its distributor, New Line Cinema, and shorn of approximately 20 minutes. (Length had also hobbled the commercial success of Malick’s WW II epic The Thin Red Line, which at 170 minutes isn’t anywhere close to his never-released six-hour director’s cut.) Reissued in January at 135 minutes, The New World disappeared again from theaters within a month, but not before sparking a flame war. “Not everyone adores [it],” wrote the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman, who himself took a neutral stance, “but those cineastes who like it, really, really like it. The movie has not only admirers but partisans—it can only be truly loved by attacking those too blind to see the truth.”

Yet, to even its most perceptive fans, including New York Press reviewer Matt Zoller Seitz, the movie’s raptures eluded any satisfying explanation, prompting another critic, Dave Kehr, to dismiss Seitz’s “infinitely repeated assertions of its greatness, backed by no evidence other than the emotions the film happened to stir.” The DVD offers a second chance, then, in admittedly diminished proportions, to reassess not just the merits of The New World, but more important to determine what, if anything, lies behind Malick’s sublime cinematography.

For anyone who has seen Malick’s first two features—Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978)—both of which are bleak tales about doomed love, it’s clear why the director was attracted to the Pocahontas legend. The relationship between the Powhatan chief’s daughter and John Smith, the Englishman whose life she purportedly convinced her father to spare, is blatantly myth. The girl’s given name was actually Matoaka. She would have been 10 or 11 years old when she saved Smith, and there is no evidence that any romance took place between them, while there is evidence that Smith may have made the whole thing up. So, in choosing to anchor his picture, in vulgar terms, on a couple of crazy kids from opposite sides of the Atlantic, Malick knowingly indulges a fantasy as much as he draws from the scant, indeterminate historical record.

Not that Malick presents a bloodless fantasy. About 15 minutes into the movie, the first native is shot in the back for stealing a hatchet. And this comes just seconds after the encampment’s governor learns that worms are devouring their food store and promptly orders the ears removed from the man responsible. But those passages are brief. For the first 90 minutes, the camera otherwise sticks to Pocahontas and Smith, played by Colin Farrell, whose one-note rakish brooding is more effective than usual. With a brick for a chin, the unaccountably gorgeous Kilcher has a strong adult’s face. Because she was 14 when the movie was shot, nothing sexually explicit can be shown. (Stroking an arm counts as steamy.) Since neither speaks the other’s language, starry eyes do most of the talking. This may sound incredibly corny, but G-rated tenderness performed this earnestly is moving.

“Guileless,” Smith calls the natives, after we’ve already witnessed them discuss their suspicions about him and his pals. Much has been said about the Euro-centric convenience portraying Pocahontas as a downy innocent, yet, for the movie to work, it’s just as important to suspend your disbelief that Smith could be as innocent as Malick portrays him. A turkey is a beguiling sight if you’ve never seen one before. In this New World, poet John Berryman wrote, “surely the English heart quails, stunned.” This is why fans of the picture often cite the hypnotic effect of its visual and aural repetitions: wind through old swaying trees, the black surface of water, birds crying as they flap their wings offscreen.

In The Thin Red Line, first blood is drawn on a cloudy afternoon when, without warning, a Japanese sniper picks off two American soldiers as they ascend a ridge. Before the shock can pass, sunlight emerges, illuminating the hillside grass into which the fallen bodies have vanished. Right here is the essence of Malick’s existential outlook: the utter inconsequence of our short lives compared to the ancient landscape we inhabit and aim to conquer. We all know that a holocaust follows the events of The New World, and Malick doesn’t spell it out for us. His vision does not distinguish between the wars humans wage against each other and the barbarism our technologies inflict on our ecosystem. The achievement of The New World is not to evoke a paradise lost, but to conjure the terrible beauty of the one we remain intent on destroying.