Watch the trailer (at apple.com).
I have to be honest: I was frightened to see The New World, the new Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven) film loosely based on the story of Pocahontas and John Smith, which till this day I believe to be some kind of patriotic, Disney-fied propaganda entrenched like an urban myth in the sordid history of our country's past. But I digress. I was scared to see the film not because it looked awful but because I had very bad associations with Malick's last film, The Thin Red Line, which I've attempted to watch no less than six times.
The first time I tried watching it I had a strange allergic reaction to a medication I had just started taking which sent my body into what I can only describe as a full body muscle spasm, a bit like a seizure. The second, third and fourth times I was in India during which the power went off twice and then the VCR just inexplicably broke. I believe the fifth time, a family member suddenly died. I've tried to block out what happened during the sixth attempted viewing. The Powers That Be obviously did not want me watching this movie.
Thus, in full Pavlovian response, I was anxious to see what Malick's latest film would do to me. Would I be hit be lighting? Would God come down from the heavens to smote me in my seat? Thankfully, nothing of the sort happened to me while watching the achingly beautiful The New World. Running at a full two and a half hours, there will be some people who will be incredibly disappointed with the film, and others who will be immensely pleased. I belong to the latter group.
This dichotomy stems from New Line Cinema's clever marketing department which fashioned the trailer (which can be accessed above) in such a way as to create the illusion of a linear narrative. Something The New World has very little of. The movie is more like an Impressionist painting, full of brushstrokes and, well, impressions. When you step back you get a full sense of what is being conveyed, however, upon closer inspection, the piece actually consists of thousands of subtle touches of color.
In the film, these touches come across through stream of consciousness narratives, sweeping landscape shots and long moments of pure and utter silence. Indeed, there is very, and I emphasis the term "very", little dialogue in the movie. Even those moments between John Smith (played here by Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas, whom she saves, after he is captured and condemned to death by her father, and subsequently falls in love with, consist mostly of longing looks and easy companionship. The New World is more French art film than anything else. You are meant to do the feeling and thinking yourself rather than the filmmaker force-feeding you what you should feel.
What moved me most about this film is the idyllic land (17th century Virginia) that Malick re-creates to astonishing success. It struck me how untouched and unscarred the country was before the Europeans arrived and tainted it with one fell swoop; less than two hours after they docked, the Captain (Christopher Plummer) orders his men to cut down dozens of trees in order to build a fence, a fort and watchtowers. It made me ache with the loss of what was.
You see the native people living in harmony with themselves and the land, you see peace, and you see wonder and happiness. Malick's use of silence only emphasizes this feeling of contentment. This is most perfectly illustrated through Pocahontas (played with indelible skill by 15-year old newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher, who herself is part indigenous, her father is a "Quechua Indian from the jungles of South America"), who moves with a grace that captures an entire civilization. When you look upon her, there is no real need for words.
And, while I realize that this world Malick creates must be somewhat idealized, I can't help but feel that it is mostly true. Sure there must have been more than a few crazy tribe members who had anger management problems, attitudes, violent tendencies and depression, but I do think many of the tribes had social strictures in place to deal with these problems so that it was possible that many enjoyed the kind of contentment portrayed in this film. Or, maybe I just WANT to believe that it could be true. Nonetheless, I definitely believe the land on which our nation was formed looked a lot different before the Europeans arrived than afterwards.
I could go further into the loose story line, but the characters, with the exception of Pocahontas, aren't what drive this film. The soul of The New World, which is less a movie and more a work of art, is in the landscape and the soft brushstrokes of the camera. The New World is a quiet film that leaves a very deep imprint.