The Theory of Chaos

Sunday, October 21, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - The New World

Originally published 2/7/06
Full review behind the jump

The New World

: Terrence Malick
: Terrence Malick
: Sarah Green
: Colin Farrell, Q'Orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer, August Schellenberg

Terrence Malick does something I really like at the end of
The New World, his meditative observation on the founding of the Jamestown colony and the unusual life of “Princess” Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher). I’d tell you about it, but I’m not in the habit of describing the very ends of movies in these reviews. You will have to decide if it is worth traversing the beginning and middle to reach a rather lovely conclusion, because for many it will be something of a trial.

Film-lovers will have some preparation for the experience of a Terrence Malick picture. With every project he retreats further from the niceties of plot and traditional storytelling, and delivers instead an extensive idyll preoccupied with the rhythms of nature and communicated through furtive inner monologue. More dialogue occurs between the ears of these characters than ever passes from their lips.

Here it is sporadically hypnotic – we are watching a de-glamorized, straight ahead depiction, filmed largely with natural light, of a historical moment. Not the arrival of explorers – America was already identified and labeled a place of opportunity – this is the landing of a different expedition, one that intends (after a grueling voyage) to stay and set up shop. And so the question of whether their culture can co-exist with that of the “naturals” already on the land can no longer be avoided.

There is love in this story, though it is not a “love story” in the traditional sense. It does note that John Smith (Colin Farrell) – a tough and insubordinate soldier who nearly becomes America’s first hanging victim – is captured by tribesmen while attempting to establish trade and is ordered executed by Chief Powhatan (August Schellenberg), and that he only survives because the Chief’s favorite daughter (Kilcher) throws herself on his body in protection. But you might best describe their relationship as one of passionate curiosity, one that certainly extends to the physical, as Smith shares the English words for various facial parts, and his smile tells us where this conversation may move next.

But it does not end here – it continues through dissension in the Jamestown colony, a savage winter, armed confrontations, the price Pocahontas pays for her affection for Smith and kindness to the white man in general, and even the rather cold-hearted way their relationship comes to an end. She ends up with another man, a second-wave colonist named John Rolfe (Christian Bale) – who shows her respect and sensitivity and loyalty, admires her and protects her in a way closer to what we’d recognize as a courtly Western love. And from her time with the people of Jamestown, the “Princess” (re-christened ‘Rebecca’) comes to recognize and appreciate this love, even though part of her still pines for the romantic sense of discovery she felt with Smith.

The movie doesn’t really take sides, except maybe the side of the trees and rivers: the natives see them as shelter and source of food, the colonists as building material and transport. Malick takes long, languid opportunities just to regard this primitive wilderness, so as to invite us to imagine the mystery and seduction it held for those Europeans. For all of his and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s skills, though, you will find yourself glancing at your watch after one too many shots of water ripples, one too many lines of ambiguous voice-over. “He is like a tree” – this is how Pocahontas describes husband Rolfe, and the simile is more airily juvenile than poetic, and the more frustrating in how little it tells us about either of these two important characters.

The colonists are blindsided by the harsh conditions of Jamestown, but the movie notes the toughness and adaptability they show when tested. When the snow clears they’re still there, with more boats on the way. And while Smith is initially enraptured by the Native American culture, ascribing to it a kind of holy perfection, we in the audience see a more divided, complex and interesting civilization.

It takes restraint to not fall into the usual pastoral trap of making this the myth where the pristine “Indians” are corrupted and destroyed by greedy and disrespectful scavengers. The New World goes deeper – using an expansive and thorough view of the details to show that the gulf between these peoples was too unfathomably large for conflict to be avoided. When “Rebecca” sails for England for an audience with the King, her father sends an observer/bodyguard, who carries a bundle of sticks and instructions to notch one every time he sees a white man. When he steps off the boat in England, beneath his stoic expression you can detect a man realizing he doesn’t have enough sticks.

How do you bridge gaps in understanding like that? On the personal level, John Smith and Pocahontas found a way for a short time at least; but Malick’s point, if he has one to make, is that the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this New World. Towns, colonies, kingdoms, these are more complex organisms, and their meetings are fated to be more cataclysmic. Like with our two leads, these two cultures first felt an intense and generally benign curiosity, but unlike our leads the cultures continued to co-habitate and the differences gradually took prominence. This is near to the heart of this story’s longevity, I think – but in the hands of a filmmaker so diametrically opposed to the emotional mechanisms of cinema we never feel a charge from it. The New World offers gorgeous scenery and authentic grime, and you’ll enjoy looking at it, and hearing the chirping-buzzing tapestry of nature sounds that accompany it. But in the final analysis it is not the transporting experience it could be.


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