The films of Terrence Malick are an acquired taste. His films Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line unfurl at a deliberate pace, transporting appreciative audiences to a world where the senses are overwhelmed by small things: shrapnel patterns in a leaf, a hesitant glance, the sound of footsteps on frozen ground.
Malick relies on sweeping shots of nature and intimate close-ups while exploring characters' inner thoughts with whispery voice-overs. He defies the typical conventions of film, rarely identifying a specific protagonist and often abandoning plot exposition. He invites the viewer to absorb, instead of simply watch, his movies.
To the uninitiated, however, his style and pace can be like watching paint dry. The New World will do nothing to change that impression.
Returning to his favorite theme of paradise lost, the filmmaker tackles the legend of Pocahontas, presenting it as a tale of innocence tainted. Less interested in myth or history, Malick seeks to re-create the way two radically different worlds collide, delivering a sad and hypnotic look at the nature of discovery itself.
The movie opens on a pristine stretch of the James River in what is now central Virginia, with the shot drifting downriver amid the sounds of unspoiled wilderness. Suddenly, three large ships sail by, exciting the natives (referred to as "naturals") who hide along the shore. The boats, from the London Virginia Company, have come to America to establish Jamestown and expand the riches of the British Empire. Chained below deck is the legendary Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), imprisoned for insubordination.
Smith, the only professional soldier among them, is ordered into the wild to find the natives' "king" and announce the colonists' intentions. He promptly gets lost and gets captured. But the chief's daughter, Pocahontas (newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher), intervenes and Smith is spared from execution.
Though her name is never actually spoken, Pocahontas becomes the film's focus. Smith falls for the spirited young maiden, and their relationship becomes a wordless exploration of the world around them. It isn't long, however, before the suspicions and antagonisms escalate between the English colonists and American natives, and politics inevitably separates the two lovers.
But The New World isn't a story of romance. Rather, it's an exploration of the way one culture can seduce and ultimately destroy another. Unexpectedly, Farrell's character takes off halfway through the film, leaving Pocahontas behind, disgraced in the eyes of her people. She's forced to live with the colonists, where she's christened Rebecca and adapts to their way of life. The rest of the movie is Pocahontas' personal voyage through uncharted social and emotional territory. She becomes accepted by the settlers, weds and, eventually, learns to love another man (Christian Bale). She visits England and finally reconnects with Smith.
Malick explores the intersection of these two worlds without cynicism or irony. Neither side is painted as evil, and he tries, with mixed success, to demystify the historically iconic characters. The New World isn't a history lesson or revisionist view of the past; it's an imagining of what the world felt like before and after it irrevocably changed.
The cast is uniformly good, but Kilcher is truly astounds. Her performance is so truthful and unmannered it's unnerving. Equally moving is the music Malick incorporates. While James Horner's haunting score may be the best he's written in years, it's the film's masterful exploitation of Wagner and Mozart that makes the biggest impact.
Near the end of the film, we return to the James River, following the same path as the opening. Nothing has changed externally, but history confirms that this vast and unspoiled Eden will soon be gone forever.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.