Malick's latest film navigates a brave 'New World'

by Matt Hill | 1/23/06 6:00am

Terrence Malick's "The New World," his fourth film in nearly as many decades, similarly shuns the notion of cold, hard fact in favor of a new realization of the story -- a re-imagining, in a sense, of our nation's beginnings, from a virgin territory populated by shadow-like peoples to a lost paradise wrought with hunger, anger and conflict.

More a visual poem than a movie, "The New World" is filled with the sounds and images of the most vivid of dreams: wind rustles through the grass, birds soar silently across overcast skies, raindrops fall on slow-moving streams. The Virginia wilderness becomes an uncharted Eden in which Smith and Pocahontas -- rolling amongst the leaves, staring at each other with wonder and fascination -- come to represent a sort of prelapsarian American Adam and Eve. The sin, Malick suggests, is not in their curiosity or their love for each other, but in the circumstances that surround them.

Admittedly, "The New World" tells its story somewhat slowly. Were you to list out all the major plot developments -- a list which, interestingly enough, would not include Pocahontas' saving of Smith's life, which is all but glossed over in the film -- you might think you were dealing with an hour-long movie. But at 135 minutes (shortened, actually, from the original 150-minute cut), the movie is at some points a test of mind and bladder. Malick trusts that his audience is both attentive and perceptive, finding in every glance and gesture an element of meaning relevant to the film's story.

While the movie flows along mainly on the strengths of Malick, who has a true artist's eye for movement, landscape and natural lighting, it's propelled forward by a phenomenal set of performances. As John Smith, Colin Farrell gives what is likely the best performance of his career. His timid longing and quiet remorse, mostly unspoken, slowly corrodes his action-hero exterior, creating in Smith a man of complexity and contradictions. Meanwhile, Christian Bale, who appears later on in the film as Pocahontas' eventual suitor, John Rolfe, becomes a welcome antithesis to Farrell's brooding, introspective Smith, courting the lost-looking Pocahontas with good-willed patience and cautious understanding. Only a few minor characters, such as Pocahontas' matriarchal caretaker, seem out of place; but they're the exception to the rule, and not the other way around.

Far and away the best performance in the film, though, and the most surprising, too, is that of Q'Orianka Kilcher, the fifteen-year-old newcomer (fourteen at the time of filming) whose playful, free-spirited Pocahontas -- unnamed, interestingly enough, for the majority of the film, until the English name her "Rebecca" -- ultimately becomes the heart and soul of the movie. "The New World" is at its most heartbreaking when the confines of civilization intrude on her spirit: the light in her eyes is dimmed, and the hop in her step is flattened. It's one of the most impressive acting debuts I've ever seen, and -- yes, I'll say it -- it's highly deserving of awards attention.

But as suggested above, the real star of the film is Malick himself, whose imagery is so stunning at times that one wonders whether admissions tickets should come with chin straps to keep your jaw from hitting the floor.

While the film has been criticized by some for this very fact -- that Malick seems either to be in love with his camera or himself, or both -- I find his supposed directorial "hubris" to be nothing more than a stamp of his passion for the craft: a passion which manifests itself only once in a long while, in projects that speak to the ideas he wants to convey.

It is a testament to the film's evocative power that, toward the end of the film, when Pocahontas goes with Rolfe back to his native England, we feel we are entering another new world -- another civilization so seemingly foreign and bizarre that it feels, as it must have for the Native American princess, simply overwhelming. The cacophony of horse hooves and carriage wheels, of caged animals and market vendors, is just as intimidating for us as were the wind whistling through the branches and the crickets chirping invisibly in the tall Virginia grasslands.

In the end, the fundamental success of Malick's film is that it transcends its primarily visceral nature to provide an intellectual and hauntingly emotional experience. And if that's not the mark of a great movie, I don't know what is.

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