A film review by Craig J. Koban

RANK: # 9


2005, PG-13, 130 mins.

Capt. John Smith: Colin Farrell / Pocahontas: Q'orianka Kilcher / Capt. Newport: Christopher Plummer / John Rolfe: Christian Bale / Powhatan: August Schellenberg / Opechancanough: Wes Studi / Wingfield: David Thewlis / Capt. Argall: Yorick Van Wageningen / Pocahontas' Mother: Irene Bedard / Savage: John Savage

Directed and written by Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick’s films are largely of the love it or leave it variety.  Despite which way one leans, there should be no denying his skill and competence behind the camera to tell visually arresting works of such haunting beauty and allure.  His career alone could be made into an equally evocative film of incredible intrigue and interest.  He certainly has become the essence of legend and myth himself.  He made his first film in 1973 in the wonderful BADLANDS and five years later he made DAYS OF HEAVEN, one of the most beautiful looking films ever made.  After that film’s incredible critical praise, Malick seemingly vanished not only off the cinematic map, but also from the rest of the world period.

There were subtle whispers, here and there, about where he was and what he was doing.  Rumors circulated about him dying or turning to writing novels and plays or later to working on new films.  He became the poster boy for the reclusive, filmmaker maverick, a genius that did not feel the need to make a film every year to cement and reinforce his abilities.  He would come back in 1998 to the silver screen with the World War II drama THE THIN RED LINE. 

I have seen that film three times now; once during its theatrical premiere, a second time on laser disc when it was released on home video and finally – and most recently – on DVD.  My initial viewing of it brought up feelings that it was a deeply flawed masterpiece, a work that was far too prosaic, lumbering, preachy, and ultimately emotionally disconnecting with its flowery and overly poetic ramblings of its characters.  My second viewing reinforced my first feelings about the film.  However, on a third viewing - alongside re-visiting his BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN in preparation for his latest film, THE NEW WORLD - I now seem to see it with a newfound appreciation.  I soon realized that, if you view his films as a whole, they are brilliant because of their unconventional artifice.  Their sheer impenetrability, at times, is what makes them works of mad genius.  He has, in essence, created his own cinematic language with them.  The fact these films don’t stridently follow the conventions of regular films with similar subject matters are their strong points.

If anything, his past works, alongside his breathtaking THE NEW WORLD, clearly showcases Malick as a director with an astute, painterly eye and vision that is not a slave to modern film making conceits.  More or less, his films re-evaluate and reinterpret the more contemporary understandings of cinematic language, more specifically picture, sound, character, and narrative.  To make “sense” of his films, by the conventional sense of the word, almost seems superfluous.  His films defy explanation with their intensely beautiful images of nature (which are always the foreground elements in his films – they are the most important characters).  His films contain moments of such breathtaking beauty and surreal authority that it’s easy to become lost in them.  They have often taken the label as being mythic, and to good effect.  By his own admission, Malick never infuses myth into nature in his film; he rather takes nature and the natural, earthy elements around all of us and deduces myths out of them.

Malick's films are mostly distinguished for the primacy, beauty and poetry of their imagery, which reminds the viewers of the fact that the most direct way in which cinema engages its audiences is through visuals.   His films force the viewer to listen carefully as well to the sounds that the world produces, including the different poignant human voices).  Watching a Malick film is like seeing a series of unrelenting images, voices, and sounds mashed together – often out of sequence – until they create an odd, dreamlike effect on the viewer.  We may not be able to decipher what the film is trying to say at any given time, but the film acts on you until you lose a sense of current reality and become a part of the film’s environment.  We emotionally react to the film as if it was acting on us as a participant.  Malick’s films, in this sense, are the ultimate out-of body works of escapism.

I ultimately felt all of these sensations while watching THE NEW WORLD, which itself is another historical re-telling of the Native story of Pocahontas.  The whole film is dripping with mythical elements.  Her story is nothing new to the cinema.  She has been portrayed in countless other interpretations, such as in silent films to even more modern, sanitized retellings in Disney animated cartoons.  Under Malick’s painterly eye, this film is a detailed and evocative look at this historical figure.  It follows all of the usual aesthetic Malick trappings, and this ultimately is a welcome thing.  Told with a more streamlined and straightforward style, THE NEW WORLD could have just been another run-of-the-mill historical film with little interest.  Told with Malick’s esoteric stylings, the tale of Pocahontas reaches a level of operatic gravitas that would have never been achieved under anyone else’s eyes.  THE NEW WORLD is a Malick vision through and through; a human tale of struggle told through an eye-of-God perspective that creates a sort of gorgeous, poetic, and breathtaking work of metaphysical imagination.  If watched correctly, it comes across as a symphony of sights and sound with the beats of a tone poem that reverberates back in on itself.  No other film from 2005 can touch THE NEW WORLD’S melancholic spirit and edge.

Some may enter into the film thinking that its and investigation into the early history of American and how the first colonists desperately tried to establish settlements there.  Yes, that is partly what the film concerns, but it more squarely focuses on the story of Pocahontas (played brilliantly by new comer Q’Orianka Kilcher), a Native American princess who acted as a bridge between her culture and that of the Europeans.  The film observes - rather vividly - the true sense of awe and unavoidable wonder that both the First Nations people of America and the English settlers must have experienced when they met one another in Virginia in the 1600’s.  THE NEW WORLD is not a film about how the colonists discover new lands in America.  The film is about how each culture discovered a “new world” in their respective cultures.  The film is also an odyssey of love set against the backdrop of uneasy alliances.  The fact that THE NEW WORLD can so masterfully marry all of these elements together is to its ultimate credit.

The film starts off with the first meeting of the two cultures, and Malick plays it off of images, sounds, and a majestic soundtrack.  English Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) is sent as an emissary to Powhatan (August Schellenberg), who is the chief of the Algonquian Indians.  It is here where Malick follows the more widely remember aspects of the Pocahontas story.  She does not immediately fall for the dashing young Smith, but instead saves his life.  She throws herself on him and at the mercy of her father and tribe who yearn to execute him.  Why does she do this?  Perhaps it’s care for another fellow human being, or maybe it’s because of her innate and intense curiosity about the visitors.  If anything, Smith doesn't altogether deserve to live.  At least in Malick’s film, this version of Smith is the least squeaky clean.  He was a London raised bigot without much of a care for anyone and is seen largely as a cantankerous troublemaker.  At one point, Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) orders his execution because of his mutinous gambling affairs.  At face value, he’s no good for Pocahontas, nor any woman for that matter.  He’s especially not good for Pocahontas in terms of an obvious age discrepancy.  She was in her early teens whereas he was well into his adult life.

Yet, after she saves him, he experiences a dramatic reawakening to life and begins to re-think things.  Malick’s film is incredibly patient in the sense that it allows their mutual love to grow and nurture naturally.  Pocahontas becomes his earthly muse, of sorts, in terms of him investing in long lost feelings of self-worth, dignity, and honour.  More than anything, she gives John a sense of joy and happiness that he perhaps never felt before.  Malick imbues their relationship with real passion and sensitivity.  A small moment where the two try to learn each other’s languages is among one of the more tender moments of discovery I’ve seen.  Here we are presented with two figures of such different cultures and, for one brief moment, they are able to put away their obvious differences and sort of become one.  As their love grows, Smith returns to his Jamestown settlement and there is a sense of dread and unease.  Tensions are growing among the English and the Indians, which slowly start to limit John and Pocahontas’ ability to get together.  Before long, John gives way to his pragmatist side and discovers that his love for the native girl is certainly doomed.  As a result, he reaches such a state of inner turmoil that he accepts a commission from the King to find a Northern passage to the Indies.  He gives instructions for one to tell Pocahontas that he has died.

It's here where Malick’s film explores new territory that other accounts of Pocahontas have failed to do.  After Smith’s departure, John Rolfe (Christian Bale) enters the story and becomes devoted to Pocahontas, despite the fact that she feels empty at the loss of Smith.  Rolfe soon wants to be with her and marry her to start a new life in America, but is this what Pocahontas desires?  Clearly, Smith is no angel (he has deserted her, not to mention lied to her in vain and deplorable ways) whereas Rolfe offers Pocahontas a good life with things most wives would want.  Clearly, there is no fire or passion with Rolfe, but the reality of her situation bears down on her and she opens herself up to him.  The two soon marry, have a child, and later go to England to where she has become an immediate celebrity.  Yet, despite her new life in a new world, does her long lost passions still haunt her?

As with Malick's other films, THE NEW WORLD is an audio-visual tour de force.  The film could be viewed successful with the sound off and as primarily a feast for the eyes.  This is the first film in nearly a decade to be shot with 65mm film stock and the results are astounding in their provocative detail and ambiance.  THE NEW WORLD reinforces Malick’s love of the natural wonders of the world and so many individual shots are such brilliantly composed visions.  The power of the film’s sights are unrelentingly captivating.  Even as impressive are the film’s sounds. Too many lesser films would fill in the background with obtrusive and numbing soundtrack.  Malick is one of those rare directors that enjoys silence of the moment.  Often scenes are scored without music and with the most discrete of sounds, from a bird’s chirp to a branch breaking in the distance to the wind blowing.  THE NEW WORLD creates such an atmosphere of remarkable veracity.  We get to view and hear a world that has long since been lost under the bulk of modern cities and technology.  Malick here is trying to bring a natural aura to the world that has yet to be touched by mass civilization.

The individual performances are equally nuanced and effective.  Malick gets a lot of mileage from the actors through physical body language, gestures, and largely through their eyes.  Often, scenes are edited out of sequence with quick jump cuts with internal monologues of the characters playing overtop of the unrelated images.  The effect here is twofold: Malick is creating an emotional work of expressionism, not realism.  Secondly, the style and performances create a poetry and a quiet and dignified opulence.  Farrell easily commands interest in his soft-spoken portrayal as Smith (he acts with his face, not with his dialogue) and Kilcher has a feisty maturity as Pocahontas that is well beyond her actual 15 years.  The age gulf between Farrell and Kilcher never seems tasteless or voyeuristic.  Their love is more playful than sexual.  When she becomes involved with Rolfe, she is older and becomes more emotionally grounded in a life of normalcy.  She, more than any other persona in the film, is able to see every aspect of the two respective cultures in all forms.  In this way, she is a true mediator.

THE NEW WORLD is only Terrence Malick’s fourth film in over thirty years.  That alone feels like too few.  His latest film further solidifies him as a true film master of marrying the natural and the mystical into a unifying vision that easily reaches a level of mythical wonderment and the more tragic humanistic impulses.  The film is a terrific poem of discovery – not only of the more literal aspects of two civilizations discovering one another, but also of the discovery of the passion within people to reach out with their inner desires.  The film works so gloriously on so many levels as an exalted piece of cinema that understands the splendor of ravishing visuals, luxurious sounds, and deep epiphanies.  It is all of these things and a stirring and fascinating narrative of the clash of two cultures during the infancy of two nations' history.   Films about the past rarely have THE NEW WORLD’s sense of a sweeping, natural exquisiteness with such an ethereal, poetic fervor.


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