The John Smith-Pocahontas romance has long been a cornerstone of America’s mythical landscape. He being the original Man Who Knows Indians (an archetype sealed by James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans), and she standing in for the land itself: Embodying equal parts purity and promise, Pocahontas represents an ideal, a paradise. The myth of their doomed love speaks to how this paradise was won and then lost. It is a story that Terrence Malick – a writer-director whose work has always sloped toward myth and, in The Thin Red Line, epic poetry – has wanted to tap for decades and finally does in his strange new film, The New World.
The New World is the departure and even, perhaps, the failure that many critics were expecting from Malick’s comeback film, The Thin Red Line. Despite Line’s 170-minute running time, the writer-director’s take on James Jones’s panoramic World War II novel was every bit as entrancing as his revered earlier films (Badlands, Days of Heaven). The New World runs 135 minutes (the version I saw was actually 150 minutes: The movie was recut after already screening across the country), and, this time, Malick does seem to have sacrificed clarity and control for the sake of spectacle. Still, the movie is certainly an important addition to a powerfully coherent filmography. He retains his formidable talent for grounding his characters in a specific geography, and he remains refreshingly concerned with their interiority: Few movie characters have souls as deep as Malick’s.
The writer-director’s movies are all marked by a stark tension between hyperrealism and voice-over-laden stylization (a muted style being no less a style than a flashy one). Much has been made of Malick’s heavily researched, no-artificial-lighting depiction of Jonestown, and, indeed, the naturalistic, cinema verité rendering of America’s first colony is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s lightning-bolt Aguirre: The Wrath of God (though Colin Farrell’s John Smith doesn’t have a hundredth the intensity of Klaus Kinski’s Aguirre). The film’s opening, which conveys the initial landing with Wagner-fueled bombast, is suitably revelatory and exemplary of Malick’s talent for lyricism.
With that said, there can, of course, be too much of a good thing. The depiction of Pocahontas and Smith’s courtship is almost insane in its unrelenting camera movements, flashes of elegiac sunlight, and impressionistic footage of plants – the scenes almost seem a parody of lyricism. The real problem here is that Malick’s aesthetic isn’t reigned in by a tight narrative construction (despite its expansive running time, The Thin Red Line never erred from a carefully plotted narrative mechanism). This Pocahontas is more human than her Disney counterpart (both because of Q’Orianka Kilcher’s performance and because the character receives a voice-over), but not enough to direct Malick’s labored gaze. By the time the story moves her to England with eventual husband John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and picks up some melodramatic heft from the heroine’s tragic arc, our attention has wavered too far for too long; the film’s many digressive passages fail to materialize into a whole.
Given how slippery The New World is, the film is set to solicit strong critical reactions. It’s indulgent and difficult to classify and will therefore push critics to extremes. In actuality, The New World really is what it seems: a fascinating failure with brilliant flourishes weighing against strained seriousness and muddled lyricism. As far as mythic American lovers in recent movies go, I think I’ll take Johnny and June over John and Pocahontas, but Malick’s vision still makes The New World worth a trip to the big screen. If the writer-director has finally stumbled, it proves what one might have guessed all along: that a Terrence Malick failure is many times more interesting than an average filmmaker’s success. While Malick might be misguided in trying to coax poetry out of a form – prestige Hollywood filmmaking – hardly known for being uncompromised, it’s difficult not to admire the ambition.
THE NEW WORLD Opens Fri/20 Selected Bay Area theaters For theater and show time info, go to www.sfbg.com www.thenewworldmovie.com