FILM MARATHON: Terrence Malick #4 – The New World [2005]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 135 minutes | Release Date: December 25th, 2005 (USA)
Studio: New Line Cinema
Director(s): Terrence Malick
Writer(s): Terrence Malick

“At the moment I was to die, she threw herself upon me”

There is no way to mistake a Terrence Malick film for anything but. His use of score as a character rather than background, the hitch cuts in scenes as though only a few frames are removed, ultra short vignettes right out of a nature documentary spliced in perfectly, and, my favorite, scenes of people talking where the words are drowned out and made almost inaudible, allowing for the visuals to trump all, are just some of the unforgettable trademarks. The New World is no exception, at times seeming as though it might take these tropes too far, expanding on the poetic lyricism of The Thin Red Line to full capacity. This untouched America is sumptuous in its pristine greenery, bright sunlight, and colorful Naturals floating soundlessly through the grass symbiotically. But we’d be remiss towards Malick’s artwork of romance and tranquil beauty by narrowly seeing the title as simply land to be conquered. The new world of the title more aptly describes the untread paths of humanity’s compassion; dearly hoping to let love conquer duty, yet finding its power so strong that sometimes it’s easier to let it go.

Christopher Plummer’s Captain Newport, before returning to England for new provisions, tells his men, “We are not here to pillage and raid, we are here to establish a colony”. The simple fact I am here writing this review in America proves those words false. History books can tell us that the colonists traveled to open up the Earth, educate those less fortunate, and spread God or religion or whatever to pagans—they can say pretty much whatever they want. Unfortunately, the truth is that mankind’s tolerance for patience and kindness only goes so far. When disease, famine, and a threat of war loom close enough to smell on the person next to you, survival instincts kick in and life becomes only as important as it’s worth to your own. The Naturals, (as the Native Americans are called here), come in peace, touching these explorers tentatively as though they’ll burst into flames by devils in white, and engage in dialogue. The colonists are just as frightened, though, and with gunpowder at their disposal against arrows and knives, the mere thought these dark-skinned, face-painted, odd speaking creatures might be the cause of their strife is enough to throw pleasantries aside. The clock begins to tick on who will arm first.

Plummer and his men leave for England with promises to return in the Spring, giving one final order to Colin Farrell’s Captain John Smith—arrived in chains and now highest ranking officer—to find the rumored city beyond the forest for food and medicine to battle the unknown illnesses. It’s a suicide mission, however, as the Naturals only wanted to bring them deeper into their territory, coming out of the trees and the grass with breakneck speed and numbers, overpowering Smith and capturing him for the king. No one quite knows what to do to the captive, but Opechancanough (Wes Studi) refuses to believe anything the explorers say about keeping to the shore. He knows expansion is on the horizon, bringing with it death, destruction, and a complete end to their way of life. Only by a princess’s hope for life over death is Smith spared to live amongst them, both learning their culture and teaching his. This unnamed girl, (we know her as Pocahontas and the role is beautifully portrayed by newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher), now becomes the embodiment of a culture, her progression through this story standing as a time-lapse look at assimilation, faith, and love … or the lack of all three.

There is the period of understanding followed by acceptance, right along to blind allegiance to an unknown cause. It only takes a single act of love to reshape a mind and soul, especially one so pure and susceptible to change. It isn’t Smith’s fault; he isn’t tricking her. You can see the passion and unbridled longing for a life devoid of jealousies, possessions, or greed. His time in the forest with the native girl who stole his heart is the dream he never thought possible. An idealist, he would like nothing more than to stay, going to share the word that the Naturals are a peaceful people willing to show their strength if threatened. The explorers are to leave—there is no city beyond the trees, it is just more untouched land going on infinitely. While these people don’t see that land as something to own, however, the colonists are not quite so willing to let God’s work stay pure, despite one of their chief exports being the message of that Lord. It doesn’t take long for Smith’s indoctrinated teachings to takeover, letting the memories of love stay memories, replacing them with the all too real picture in front of his eyes, that of dying men waiting for rescue. He needs Plummer to return no matter what it means for the land he’s been taught is to remain free.

Kilcher’s young girl is still yet untouched by European ideas and shortcomings, going against her father’s one rule: to keep her people always at the front of her actions, even if it means betraying her heart. So here is someone who parlays peace, shows the kindness to save strangers during winter with furs and meat, warns them—no, warns him (Smith)—of an impending siege planned, and then is left behind as collateral damage once the call of King and country send her love back across the Atlantic. She, now without a name and disowned by her father, is a physical representation of the displaced thousands at the hands of a forced hostile takeover, one whose compassion only gave her heartbreak and pain in return. The shattering of her heart once told of Smith’s death—his way of saving her the pain of longing for his return—coinciding with the destruction of her people, their homes and village burned to the ground as they unceremoniously flee.

So much is brought forth here in the over two-hour progression of settlement to eventual journey to England by the Naturals themselves that some moments appear neglected. I say appear because Malick has a glorious knack of showing events without explanation but with complete visceral understanding. We watch mutinies at the hands of David Thewlis’s Wingfield and Yorick van Wageningen’s Argall, seeing starving men turn on their own for power and dreams of survival; we look on as battles are waged between spears and guns, the camera following warriors at their back while advancing on their bloody courses; and we see the sudden change in colony attitude, coinciding with the new structure of control, by Christian Bale’s John Rolfe and his settlers looking for friendship among those Naturals who stayed. The transitions are many and the course forward rapid and full of information, spliced with gorgeous views of blowing weeds, crawling spiders, and soaring birds through the waving trees.

Malick, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, once more gives us close-up abstractions, intriguing compositional croppings, frames over-saturated with brightness, the juxtaposition of running through wild American foliage and the manicured hedges of London, and the genuine smiles of lovers existing within turmoil. This film gets no better than the visual montages of Farrell’s and Kilcher’s untainted hope for the future set to James Horner’s score and dulcet toned voiceover. They move as though parts of one whole, exploring the canvas of their souls as two human beings without a cultural ocean between them. If only these lives could have remained in happiness away from the inevitable bloody future ahead. Instead, theirs is an innocence lost as an uncharted land is gained in return. Malick’s eye and skill at emotional resonance showing how maybe the spoils weren’t worth the cost.

[1] Colin Farrell as John Smith in New Line Cinema’s “The New World” (2005)
[2] Q’Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas in New Line Cinema’s “The New World” (2005)
[3] Christian Bale as John Rolfe in New Line Cinema’s “The New World” (2005)

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