Can we pretend that this is not the latest from Terrence Malick, the legendary filmmaker who’s only directed three films in the first three decades of his career but made a masterpiece each time? No one can create genius each time around and, sooner or later, even the most gifted artists disappoint somewhat. “The New World” is not nearly a complete failure. In fact, if it were the work of someone whose name commands less admiration and expectations, it would be considered a superior effort. But when you hold it against such defining pictures as Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, it can’t help but pale in comparison.
What’s most puzzling is that “The New World” is in direct continuity with the rest of Malick’s oeuvre: it’s lyrical, gorgeously photographed, more concerned with nature than with man’s quibbles, full of naïve thoughts heard in voice-over, majestically scored… Then why doesn’t it hold the hypnotic power of its predecessors? Is it the actors’ fault? Is the Pocahontas story just not that interesting? Did Malick lose his footing during the editing process and end up with a film at once choppy and loose?
We begin in the early 17th century, as English ships arrive to Virginia with the intention of setting up their first permanent colony in the Americas. Right away, things feel a little off. You got the great Christopher Plummer going around telling his men how it’s gonna be, then you have Colin Farrell’s John Smith, who’s locked up, sentenced to death then freed for unclear reasons. This will become a constant in “The New World”. Not Smith being imprisoned then randomly released (though that happens at least twice more), but characters doing things for unexplained reasons.
Now, I’m not asking for conventional storytelling and easy answers to every question, this is a Malick flick after all. But there was a discernable progression to Kit and Holly’s killing spree, the farmland romantic triangle and the military manoeuvres that drove his previous tales. Here, events unfold but don’t always register, as if Malick didn’t care that much. Again, that’s to be expected, Malick never cared about plot that much, but usually he compensates by making every moment resonate. Here, not so much.
The part of the movie where we come closest to the fascinating sense of discovery Malick has used us to is when John Smith goes up the river to meet the “Savage King”. Everything with the Indians (often referred to as “naturals”) is great, from their body paint to their rituals, games, etc. And then of course there’s Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher), the young daughter of the king who falls in love with Smith. Their flirtation and mutual curiosity is greatly enjoyable, alas it doesn’t last.
Smith is soon sent back to the English settlement, where the men are struggling with starvation, disease and delirium. All of this is well rendered, as is the eventual epic war with the Indians, but we don’t feel much for these guys, they’re all flat and forgettable as characters – even Smith comes off as a blank. We get that he has an immense respect and affection for the naturals in general and Pocahontas in particular, but we’re not made to understand what he does about it, against it even. The romance is not that moving to begin with (cute is what it is), but it becomes increasingly stop’n’go, making it hard to follow the lovers’ whims.
I won’t go into all the details of what happens in the second half of the film, but basically Smith and Pocahontas are separated and she somehow ends up getting married to another English dude played by Christian Bale, who projects his usual dark charisma but can’t overcome the fact that he comes out of nowhere and is mostly a plot device. Thematically, there are interesting ideas in this third act, regarding the New World princess being educated and made to conform to the Old World’s ways for better or worse, teenage love (carelessly frolicking in the hay, “Lips.”) giving way to adult love (tending the crops together, “He shelters me.”) and so on. Unfortunately, these ideas don’t inspire that much thought or emotion. “The New World” is never less than astounding visually and is worth seeing if only for that, but it lacks the consistency in vision of Malick’s masterpieces.