With “The New World,” writer/director Terrence Malick has released the most important major U.S. cinematic statement in the last 20 years. Uncompromising, symphonic and abstract, yet also pure, simple and direct, the film is in nearly every way the antithesis to modern-day Hollywood.
Starring Colin Farrell (as Capt. John Smith) and the ravishing Q’orianka Kilcher (as Pocahontas), the plot of “The New World” is one so woven into the fabric of U.S. history and culture that to recount it would be to swim in redundancy. However, what makes the film so important, so essential, is what Malick chose to do with the story and just how he elected to shoot it.
The picture is broken up into three major story arcs: John Smith’s relationship with Pocahontas, Pocahontas’ relationship with John Rolfe and the Native Americans’ relationship (or lack thereof) with the English settlers. Permeating through these three arcs are 135 minutes worth of stunning imagery, cinematography and symbolism that unquestionably prove Malick to be a master of his craft.
“The New World” opens with an image of a reflection of a lake. White clouds, a light blue sky and dark trees hang over the water. The camera is still. Then rain begins to fall and ripples appear distorting the image. Soon, the camera begins to move. Algae are seen. The genesis of life. Then, a quick cut to as-yet-unintroduced Pocahontas. She is only on the screen for a moment, but the viewer is immediately drawn in. Shot from the waist up, her arms are outstretched. She is filled with joy. And then a voiceover: “We rise, from out of the soul of you.”
It’s a cliche, but with Malick you’re forced to use it: visual poetry. Combining an endless array of gorgeous naturalistic shots with some of the most “you are mine, I am yours, the world is ours” dialogue ever to make it onto the silver screen, Malick does everything that he can to create an image of love at its zenith. In his eyes, John Smith and Pocahontas together represent love unspoiled, love untrammeled, or the new world before the conquest.
And when John Smith and Pocahontas part: a flock of birds is briefly shown on the screen, diverging.
Images like this don’t show up in modern-day U.S. cinema. And truthfully, they’ve rarely, if ever, shown up at all.
Moreover, “The New World” is the rare, singular example of a film made with Hollywood money that is the anti-Hollywood film. There are no special effects, and Malick specifically shot the picture in natural light, mostly using – now outdated – 65mm stock. No outlandish action sequences. No rough and tumble sex scenes. It is slow and poetically self-indulgent at times. What violence there is is plot-specific and historically based.
The “name” stars seamlessly blend into their roles, and the appearance of Christian Bale as John Rolfe more than midway through the film feels natural, as if he just walked out on stage. In fact, “The New World” is more fully realized, more abstract and “artsy” than anything that the independent film world has released in years. And there are no easy answers, and there is no happy ending. Furthermore, there is no resolution. The new world continued to develop once the story portrayed in “The New World” ended and Malick knows it: the film cuts out just at the moment that Hollywood would normally send a script-doctor in to tidy up the loose ends.
Lastly, much in the way that Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” redefined the cinematic view of the Vietnam War, Malick’s “The New World” redefines the historical epic. Rather than recreate to sell a side or point of view, Malick feels the story out. Human emotions present in the characters and what they represent in humanity control the picture. Entire 3-to-5-minute sequences go by where there is no dialogue, no speech. In doing so, Malick defies convention and precedence, staking out new, hallowed ground.
With “The New World,” Malick, as an artist and a visionary, has come full-circle. Where his two early works, “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” explored the limits that the desire for personal freedom places on love. And where “The Thin Red Line” examined the chaos that war makes out of the simple, good things in life, “The New World” is an attempt to show to the world what the world has wrought. Greed. Desire. Love. Allegiance. Selflessness versus selfishness. “The New World” addresses the issues that have both lifted up and held down humankind. And Malick asks, have we gotten anywhere? Do we ever learn?