The New World by Terrence Malick

The New World by Terrence Malick

While vacationing at my mother’s house in the Virginia countryside this summer I decided it might be appropriate to check out Terrence Malick’s The New World from the local library. Though I truly love Tree of Life and rather like his earlier films I nevertheless didn’t have high expectations. It’s almost a given that Hollywood will botch any historical event with schmaltz, sentimentality, inaccuracies, and whitewashing, especially if the area of history is something as momentous as the origins of America. The founding of Jamestown, the first permanent settlement on the American continent, is something the myth-makers monitoring our popular consciousness would like to let alone– after all, though it might have been the beginning of ascendance of one kind of people, it was also the genesis of apocalypse for another. This is not a narrative that lends itself easily to Hollywood and its aggrandizing temperament. But the encounter of two distinct civilizations is not just a story; it is poetry and that is what The New World feels like– dizzying and abstract, uncanny and rich. Yes, in the wrong hands, a 130-minute poem might be disastrous, but in Malick’s it feels so pure, lovely, and wonderful that the transcendence we hope for from great art lingers long after, moving me to say (albeit, quite belatedly) that The New World is the greatest film of the past decade.

One of the most provocative acts any critic endeavors to do is say a certain piece of artwork is the best of anything, because in all likelihood he is going to be called names — “philistine” or “snob”– depending on which camp the choice offends. Almost no one’s happy because human beings have an insane allegiance to personal favorites. Now I am not a fan of the Naughts in any of the major popular forms; literary, musical, and cinematic– it was a weak decade. Regarding Hollywood, it seemed for much of the era boy magicians, questing hobbits, and superhero blockheads dominated the screens, leaving mature audiences to fend for themselves. There were some good films but very few great ones so that in my occasional Top Ten listmaking with friends of similar predilections, I’d never bothered to consider the best films of the 2000s. I suppose a shortlist would include Y Tu Mama Tambien, Sexy Beast, L’enfant, The Royal Tenenbaums, Irreversible, Syriana, The Constant Gardener, and Children of Men. But until I saw The New World I never felt “best” was a necessary qualifier.

That The New World could be forsaken not only by the public but the critics as well reveals the extent to which we have lost the capacity to recognize a visionary work of art. Click To Tweet

Love in the Time of Eden and Aftermath

The story of John Smith and Pocahontas is a familiar one to most Americans (and that fact has little to do with the Disney film from the mid-nineties). Smith is part of a group of ragtag English colonists trying to start over in a so-called new world. Of course, it is not a new world, but an old one inhabited by Powhatan Indians. While it seems there is much potential for the men as they build their fort, cooperation with “the naturals” (as they are called by Captain Newport) would be essential for survival and Smith is sent to establish trade relations. He is very nearly put to death by the Powhatan chief, spared only when Pocahontas intervenes. While Smith lives with the naturals, he falls in love with the chief’s irresistibly charming daughter. His time with the Powhatan is idyllic but he is not of the indigenous tribe and must return to the fort, with its starving, raving colonists, desperate now for food and warmth with the onset of winter. John Smith is put in charge of the colony upon his return, complicating the Capulet-Montague dynamic already inherent in his love for Pocahontas.

Normally a loudmouth, arrogant actor, Colin Farrell’s John Smith is masculine but gentle– he might slay you in hand-to-hand combat but will feel very bad about your death afterwards. Farrell portrays Smith as a man utterly melancholic that this great love of his is doomed. And we the audience sympathize because the young actress, Q’orianka Kilcher, is so winning that it would be utterly foolish not to abandon the mortgage, insurance payments, traffic jams, cable TV, and the ephemeral junk that is modern life to live with her among trees, wildflowers, streams, and fields of gold. Kilcher inhabits Pocahontas with a sense of wonder that I have never quite seen in a performance. She physically manifests the trees, the sun, and the earth, but playfully and though childlike she also has the fall of the Powhatans on her conscience as it is she who instigates the tribe to gift the colonists with food in the dead of winter and who warns Smith of an imminent attack when the indigenous decide to expel the white man and his genealogical plague, that of materialistic avarice, racist exceptionalism, and ecological violence, habits antithetical to the communally organized tribe and its harmonious relationship to nature. The colonists are ready when the Powhatan attack and slaughter many with cannon and musket fire.

Film Still from The New World Terrence Malick

Film Still from The New World Terrence Malick

A treacherous Pocahontas (to be fair, all lovers are foolish) is disowned by her people and comes to live in Jamestown, now reinforced with more men and supplies and successfully tilling the land. John Smith, looking ever more mournful, takes an assignment from the king to lead an expedition to discover a northwest passage. He leaves Pocahontas without an explanation and has another colonist lie about his death en route so that, emotionally, she can move on. By now, her sensual summer tribe fashions have been replaced by stiff bodices and cumbersome petticoat and the forests where she’d roamed free are “there” but not “here.” The loss of John Smith forever is the vanishing of her last happiness. An alien in her own land, now she is truly alone.

Nevertheless, the first colonist to successfully grow tobacco in Virginia, John Rolfe (Christian Bale in an understated, patient performance), is smitten—it takes him some time to court her but he does and she begets him a son. Things could have gone happily ever after, were it not for Pocahontas learning the truth of John Smith and King James of England requesting their company at Buckingham Palace, angling the love triangle just so. It is natural, of course, that the woman who bridges one world to the next should be loved so dramatically by two great men.

My description of the plot may sound melodramatic but the execution is anything but. Like Stanley Kubrick, Malick is skilled at making us feel like participants, as if we are in the forest or the battlefield, loving and losing. The director is sensitive that we should feel this story as much as receive it—thus the sensuality, innocence and brutality alternately swoons and bludgeons. That it is extraordinarily researched and meticulous to detail (especially in regards to indigenous village life and language) makes it all the more intense. But more than a historical anecdote, this is a love story and Malick portrays the extraordinary tenderness between John Smith and Pocahontas nonverbally rather than with obvious declaratives prevalent in so much storytelling cliché. Most of the exposition is revealed not between characters but with voiceover: beautiful, poetic expressionism whispered over scenes of tribal life, elemental weather, bucolic freedom, accompanied by Richard Wagner’s ravishing “Prelude to Das Rheingold.” While falling for the Chief’s favorite daughter in the forest, John Smith susurrates, “Love. Shall we deny it when it visits us? Shall we not take what we are given? There is only this. All else is unreal.” To which, Pocahontas, with nature as their stage and sound (rushing rivers, crepitating leaves, warbling birdlife, singing insects), murmurs, “Father. Where do you live? In the sky…the clouds… the sea…? Show me your face. Give me a sign. A god he seems to me. What else is life but being near you? Do they suspect? All to be given to you. And to me. I will be faithful to you. True. Two than one. One. One. I am. I am.”

Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick

It’s hard to qualify the effect of these scenes with mere words—The New World is one of those rare films that demonstrates the cinema as perhaps the world’s most important art, so potent is the emotional, sensual effect, more dimensional than what’s possible in literature and music. I cannot watch this film without feeling tremendously affected by the messy, hopeless experiment that is mankind– our excess, our potential, our bad and our good. Though never outright polemical, Malick suggests we lost as a species with the triumph of one civilization at the expense of another—and it’s not just the egalitarian society of Native Americans but their peaceful alliance with nature as well. Malick’s portrayal of the Virginia countryside on the eve of its appropriation by Europeans is as inspiring for environmentalists as any film ever made.

But I can also feel that Malick has loved and lost. Why else would he devote several years of his life to this now mythical time in our history? The story feels like a metaphor for the joys and tragedies endured by Malick himself. You can’t tell a story this beautifully without some truth in experience. His loss, whatever it might have been, is contextualized in a work of art, winning our sympathies and affections without loosening the secrets that inspired him in the first place. His catharsis is ours too.

Released on Christmas Day, 2005, The New World barely recouped its $30 million production costs and received few enthusiastic reviews. It was snubbed by the Academy, receiving only one Oscar nomination (for Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking camerawork—he lost). The Best Picture that year was Crash, a silly, almost meaningless melodrama trivializing Los Angeles race relations. That The New World could be forsaken not only by the public but the critics as well reveals the extent to which we have lost the capacity to recognize a visionary work of art. It’s not Malick’s fault nor is it that of the ghosts of John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Powhatan Indians who bequeathed us our land and our tragedy. It’s our problem. After all, collective loss is something we’ve been perpetuating for four centuries now. That’s how we roll.