The biggest moments in Terrence Malick films are the easiest ones to miss. His first, Badlands (1973), had the clearest narrative of his films, of which he’s made a grand total of four in 33 years; it’s stunning, and more than a little sad, that someone of his talent and skill isn’t more prolific. Badlands followed a young hood named Kit (Martin Sheen) as he roamed from town to town through the Dakotas with young love Holly (Sissy Spacek), robbing and killing as he saw necessary, until he and Holly ran off to the woods. Kit didn’t have any particular love for nature, or at least not the way Malick did, but Kit and Holly built a primitive house and had a few small animals, scraping by until the law caught up with them. And it was this theme of man trying to get back to nature, seeking the return to some kind of psychological womb, that Malick carried on in Days of Heaven (1978), chronicling the rocky love between two migrant farmhands in early 20th-century America. When Malick returned from a two-decade hiatus with The Thin Red Line (1998), the die had been cast: The film is more an idea about a war movie than any conventional war story. Trailers for the film trumpeted an all-star cast of most of Hollywood’s leading men, but the film itself shoves most of these names, even the big ones, into the background; George Clooney appears on screen for maybe a minute, total. Set during the World War II battle of Guadalcanal, The Thin Red Line let Malick return to the waving fields of grass, drowsy voice-overs, and somber pacing that he’d hinted at with his earlier works. It’s a powerful film, but hardly an engaging one, and Malick’s drawn-out storytelling tends to give everything equal weight, from the death of a major character to b-roll of a gurgling stream. All this to say that with The New World, Malick continues in the inevitable direction he’s already charted, weaving gorgeous landscapes and meditations on nature through a tale of doomed love and desecrated culture.
From the outset, function follows form. The first words we hear are the voice-over of the girl we’ll come to assume is Pocahontas, though that name is never mentioned until the closing credits roll. She’s standing in the water, arms outstretched, beseeching a power she doesn’t comprehend for answers she knows she won’t understand. Played with grace and subtlety by 15-year-old Q’Orianka Kilcher, she’s a free but restless spirit, completely at home with the world around her. That is, until the ships from England arrive, bringing with them nervous soldiers and would-be colonists, including Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell). The ships eventually leave to make another supply run to England, and Smith is left in charge of the fledgling fort and responsible for making peace with the local tribes. Some of the men refer to them as “savages,” but Smith and Capt. Newport (Christopher Plummer) refer to them as “naturals,” an important distinction for Malick. His script doesn’t refer to them as “natives” because it would be too obvious, and it wouldn’t have the connotation that “naturals” carries, i.e., a people of the earth, and connected to it.
The love story between Smith and Pocahontas is at the heart of the film, a largely wordless interplay that wraps them up and is doomed from the beginning. This is, after all, not exactly a fable, and no amount of hoping things will turn out OK will make it so. And you shouldn’t assume that the brief sketch I just laid out is in any way a summation of the film; those few sentences are spread over the first 90 minutes or so, and the film’s full running time is 135 minutes, trimmed by 20 minutes or so from the version screened for critics and an awards-qualifying run in December. No, the real story for Malick is the way a flock of geese break over the dawn, or the image of rain in a Virginia swamp. And here’s the thing: It works.
The story, or myth, of John Smith and Pocahontas has been told to so many grade-schoolers and in so many less-than-reputable manners that we don’t need the details, which is probably why Malick felt comfortable making a movie about Pocahontas without ever naming her. But Malick revives the immediacy and poignancy of the story by letting their sad relationship play out as the mirror to the colonists’ unstoppable invasion of what would become America, even as men like Smith do what little they can to prevent it. Smith wonders in voice-over: “What voice is this that speaks within me … guides me toward the best?” If Pocahontas is on a search for a greater life through Smith, he’s seeking a way out of the whole thing. He wants nothing more than to live with her and her people, and their time together, as the tribe begins to warily accept him, is the happiest for both of them.
Malick’s work has always been leading to this story because, for a naturalist like him, this is the beginning of the end. The New World is a story of America’s original sin, of the first time we said no to nature and rejected the glory of the Earth for the temptation of possession and the greed of racial dominance. Newport encourages his men by saying, “Let us prepare a land where a man may rise to his true stature … a kingdom of the spirit.” The biblical aspirations and fall from grace run throughout the story, from Newport’s assertion of the colonists’ reign in a new Eden to Pocahontas’ banishment from her land and exile to the east (her trip to England the ultimate extension of this) after betraying her father to help Smith and his men. Malick’s protagonists have always tried to get back to some kind of pure, natural state, most notably The Thin Red Line’s Pvt. Witt (James Caviezel), who went AWOL and found peace while communing with islanders, only to be pulled back into war. Smith is the apotheosis of Malick men: in love with nature, called to greatness, and unable to save himself.
As Smith, Farrell rises above expectations, though his watchability is probably helped by Malick’s tendency to focus on the tree and not the actor next to it (keep an eye peeled for Ben Chaplin, whose inexplicable presence serves no purpose). Farrell hasn’t really made a good movie or been enjoyable in one since Tigerland, and even that was more a triumph for director Joel Schumacher to overcome his inherent lack of talent and at last churn out one relatable film. Farrell’s career seems impenetrable, despite a resume weighed down by Phone Booth, S.W.A.T., and what will surely be an awful version of Miami Vice. But he’s guided by Malick to something like a good performance, though he’s overshadowed every step of the way by Kilcher, who so inhabits her role she makes Farrell look even rougher. James Horner’s score, rounded out with Mozart and Wagner, brings an appropriate tone to the film, particularly the rolling, echoing horns heard when the ships first arrive. They’re heralding a birth and a death, and Malick captures the change beautifully.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.The New World / Daniel Carlson
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()