A new Terrence Malick movie is cause for celebration in some circles. Considering that The New World is only Malick’s fourth film in thirty-three years (his first, Badlands, came in 1973), it should be a cause for celebration for anyone who loves cinema because of the unique film style and outlook on the world that Malick embraces in his films.
I don’t know what brought Malick out of his twenty year hiatus in 1998 with The Thin Red Line but as long as he’s making a movie every seven or eight years, I’m a very happy camper. I’m one of those people who are celebrating in the theatre as the lights dim as my heartbeat goes faster and faster when I see that first Malick shot—but I’m just geeky like that I guess.
The New World is the telling of the early days of American history—done Malick style, which I will go into—as the English arrive in Virginia in early 17th century. What they find is not the Eden they imagined—you know the popular myth where gold was everywhere, just laying on the ground waiting to be scooped up by the handful.
No, this “new world” wasn’t quite so friendly. The English build a makeshift fort, fight off starvation, live in absolute squalor and manage to make enemies out of the one people that can either keep them alive or kill them off—the Native American tribes that populate the area (one of which is played by the great Wes Studi, an Oklahoman).
The film has one of the best opening ten minutes I’ve seen recently. The English ships arrive on the shores and the Native-Americans witness these vessels from the protective barrier of the trees while being completely stunned and sort of freaking out. Music builds with intensity, no words are spoken, yet these two cultures come face to face for the first time, and knowing the outcome over the next couple of hundred years—it’s a powerful moment.
The early story concentrates on John Smith (Colin Farrell, who I can't stand but luckily he is sort of controlled by the fact there’s little dialogue for him to butcher like he usually does) and his relationship with the fetching Pocahontas. He’s torn between his love for this woman, vastly different than anything he’s known before, and his duty to England and his need to explore the unknown world.
Pocahontas, played by newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher, desperately loves Smith and is willing to sacrifice all for him—including her traditions within the tribe—but Smith isn’t so sure. The film uses this love story as the basis for exploring a lot of other ideas that Malick wants to look into.
Well into the film Christian Bale shows up as another settler in the Virginia colony and who takes a fancy to the beautiful Pocahontas. When Bale enters the film the story picks up again from a sagging middle portion of the film that wasn't as good as the 1st and last third.
The New World has the usual visual aplomb by Terrence Malick. This means breathtakingly beautiful cinematography that embraces natural lighting. By using natural lighting Malick creates mood, varied color tones and atmosphere just by showing this world the way it actually looks—not by adding anything artificial to the look of the film. It’s stunning to see.
Malick has a philosophy background and this film is an extension of that as it’s a meditation on love, nature and the destruction of untainted lands that go hand in hand with his previous films. The story has little dialogue, as there’s more internal narration than there is people talking to one another.
The pace of the film is also rather slow, which fits with the story, as life among these people is seasonal. Life is connected to the natural elements around them. Malick returns to scenes of nature over and over again. No one films nature like Malick—no one. Water, light in the trees, wheat, rivers, sunsets and other aspects of nature return repeatedly.
At one point, Pocahontas sums up Malick’s opinion on wheat by stating simply, “I love grass.” I do too, Mr. Malick, I do too. I could sit and watch Malick show wheat like he does in this or in his 1978 film Days of Heaven for hours on end. The man knows how to film wheat like nobody’s business!
I love Malick’s storytelling style but it might put off some not initiated in the way he makes a movie. Don’t be alarmed. If you can allow yourself to slow down and let his lush visuals, the epic quality, the loose narrative style wash over you, a more rewarding cinema experience might be had by watching this versus most of what’s in theatres.
It takes a bit of work sometimes while watching The New World, but the dividends are greater. When the movie is over, you feel like you’ve seen one man’s artistic vision and a magical spell has come over you, it’s not some overly processed, manufactured by marketing strategy film like so many of the movies released these days are. Isn’t that a feeling worth working for just a little bit? I think it is.