You are only allowed to watch a Terrence Malick on Blu-Ray or in the theater. I am satisfied to set this down in a law. I would be tempted to add a corollary that your home theater must also be equipped with surround sound, but The New World (2005) does something to undercut that temptation. The New World undercuts a number of things I felt established in Malick. Judgment in music, his infallibility with regards to mise-en-scène, and a brutality in editing that would keep things continuously interesting. And I probably go too far here, but I also sense a kind of self-correction and an attempt to be something like conventional. Either I’m foolish to think that or Malick was foolish to attempt it.
Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell) arrives in the new world in chains. Some action of Smith’s was taken as mutinous against Capt. Newport (Christopher Plummer) and almost costs Smith his life. When the supplies are found to be spoiled, Newport leaves Wingfield (David Thewlis) in charge while Newport returns to England. Things remain difficult and Smith is sent into the forest to trade with “the naturals”. Smith goes deep into the forest and is captured by Powhatan’s (August Schellenberg) men. They too are for killing Smith, but he is saved by Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher). After a time, Smith and Pocahontas fall in love before Smith has to return to the settlement with word that they are to leave the following spring or be attacked. When he gets back, Smith finds the settlement has fallen into decay and madness and he, Smith, is made leader. Then a great deal more happens.
There’s a considerable tension between Malick and the movie he’s making. If I were to pitch this to an executive, I’d say that it is the visuals of To the Wonder (2013) (review), the general story of Pocahontas (1995), told in the fashion of Elizabeth (1998). It is the former and latter combination that creates the tension. As you might tell from the second paragraph, it is fairly heavy on plot. For a Malick movie it’s gargantuan. This need to tell a story—and this is, as far as I know, very close to actual events—makes Malick’s visual style a distraction. This is especially true in the final third of the film when John Rolfe (Christian Bale)—who I think is never named—falls for Pocahontas and he baptizes her, marries her, and takes her to England. It feels like the last half hour of The Return of the King (2003).
That might have something to do with the fact that I watched the Extended Cut, which is the only Blu-Ray in print at 2 hours 48 minutes long (a half hour longer than the theatrical release). Apparently, Malick altered the narration to clarify the plot. Why clarify the plot? I saw the movie, it still isn’t clear, it just takes a lot of time for people to do things. That’s what I mean by distraction. Running around and playing takes up about 80% of To the Wonder. I didn’t mind at all. The movie wasn’t about going from one place to another. But this movie is, or at least it feels like it is. Possibly the root of all of this trouble is the lack of balance to the story. The final third is so heavy into the developed world that it’s jarring after two hours in the forests of Virginia. Hey, that’s a great effect, right? Well, not when it comes at the end of two hours in the forests of Virginia and, based upon the strongly built-in sense of story length, feels like a new movie has started.
[Spoiler Alert: When Pocahontas (as Rebecca) gives up on Smith in favor of Rolfe I stopped understanding the movie. It was an overload. Wait, so this isn’t about a deep-felt romance blooming in a primitive land but a woman’s journey from primitive love to Old World, Protestant values of a nice man with a nice house? “Mother, I have found you.” What?! The whole of the movie that came before that stood in the starkest contrast to that kind of resolution.]
Things began quite poorly with the opening credits, which didn’t make any sense at all, which come in with a thud between two pieces of narration and beautiful photography. They are such a poor reflection of what The New World is like and so orthodox that I cannot imagine that Malick allowed them. Nothing about them is understated and the pace is racing. The music, from James Horner, when he is allowed in is unremarkable—it could have been from Glory (1989) or Field of Dreams (1989). The Vorspiel of Das Rheingold (by Wagner) is the kind of low horns that were used intermittently in To the Wonder (2013), and is gorgeous, but constitute virtually the exclusive music of the movie.
And yet it was beautiful. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (also of To the Wonder and The Tree of Life (2011)) show breathtaking images over and over. People walk through tall grass, grabbing at the seeds. It’s everything you expect from these two. The actors were uniformly terrific. The depiction of Virginia natives felt a bit like exploitation, but it looked so good that I decided it was genuine. Hey, if Wes Studi is in it, it must be fine. But here’s one more criticism. The way Malick films, it makes everything hyper-realistic. With the natives, and Colin Farrell, that’s not a problem in the least, they are timeless. But when the 17th century English come on the scene at Jamestown, it’s like human tourists on an alien planet. It’s really just the hats. It’s jarring. Hey, that’s a great effect, right? Well, not when they are as much tourists in that place and time as they would be in our own place in time. I don’t look at that and think, “Gee, how odd I must look to them”, but “Gee, they look really odd.” I think this is because of the hats and the fact that they seem to be uniformly shot with the long shot (head to toe) which makes them objects while the natives and first settlers were mostly medium and close. Also, these new settlers were super clean and I don’t buy that at all.
Another thing that I didn’t couldn’t buy was the great “intense” “battle” scene. Firstly, it was disjointed. I couldn’t tell why they were fighting as they were, when they were. Secondly, it was very staged. They were fighting away from the fort in a single block which made no sense. The fighting was not intense in the least. This is very much a PG-13 movie. That observation travels further than the single battle. We’ve spent an hour (at least) with the cinematographer and we know where the camera wants to go. That is, until this fight scene and until every romantic interaction with Pocahontas, or should I say Ms. Kilcher because that is how she is treated. A man raises his sword and brings it down on…wait, where did he go? Smith gently caresses against Pocahontas’s arm, he goes in for a kiss and…wait, why are we walking? (Possibly because the actress is 14 years old.) This is not like Scarlet smiling on the stairs the next morning in Gone with the Wind (1939) or Llewelyn’s battle fought off-screen in No Country for Old Men (2007). It isn’t for effect. It is shoe-horning into a rating.
This movie is very much about something. It’s about America, the new world, the opportunity it provides, the beauty of the land, and all sorts of other things. The narration on this point was so on the nose that if the actors were a little less hushed in their tones might have made me laugh out loud. Then, as I alluded to in my spoiler, things changed somewhere when I wasn’t looking. It was abrupt and unremarked upon.
Certainly, upon reflect most of these criticisms become enormous in my imagination. While watching, however, I was mostly engrossed if a little bored. Strange how this movie, which has a great deal of plot, required more patience and endurance from me than To the Wonder. I suspect that the greatest culprit was the music. In To the Wonder, it was beautiful to hear and see. The New World was mostly just beautiful to see with the occasional beautiful sound.