When people decry the state of modern filmmaking, I think they must consider the case of Terrence Malick. The famously private writer-director made his debut with Badlands in 1973, an indie film financed mostly by people outside the industry. Five years later, he followed that up with the gorgeous Days of Heaven, which had a difficult production and lengthy post-production. That was enough to leave him struggling to get a picture off the ground for two decades, until he finally released The Thin Red Line in 1998. It took him another eight years to do The New World, then six more for The Tree of Life. So five movies in nearly 40 years.
But something changed in the 2010s: To the Wonder came out just a year after The Tree of Life and Malick managed to make three more movies (plus an IMAX experience) before the end of the decade. Back in the day, his films were huge events for cinephiles like me, now sometimes I don’t even hear about them at all when they come out (the fuck was Song to Song?). For whatever reason, one of our least bankable directors became his most prolific during perhaps the most commercial era in cinema’s history. I leave it to you to decide if giving Malick access to so many ways to make and distribute movies enabled an auteur to finally thrive or took some of the shine off of him.
The New World is, on paper, a historical epic about the founding of Jamestown and the relationship between John Smith (Colin Farrell) and his fellow English colonizers and Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) and the Powhatan tribe, the people who already live there. But, like The Thin Red Line before it, once you strip away your expectations for genre conventions, you can see why Malick would want to tell this story. It’s about a troubled older man and a pure, much too young girl. It’s about the stoic resolve necessary to accept one’s bitter fate. It’s about man’s connection to and rejection of nature. It’s even got a love triangle! In retrospect, it’s hard to come up with a story more perfect for Malick.
Basically, John Smith arrives at Virgina a defeated man, doomed to be executed. Instead he is spared at the last moment by his captain (Christopher Plummer), who sees how ill prepared they are to settle here and recognizes the need for Smith’s skills. The captain ultimately decides to return to England for supplies, but not before sending Smith to form a trade relationship with the locals. In doing so, Smith nearly gets himself executed again when he ends up captured. He is saved at the last moment by Pocahontas, the chief’s most favored daughter, and given a chance to live among the Powhatan as they learn about their respective languages and cultures. Smith and Pocahontas fall for each other, but eventually he is sent back to Jamestown and, as is always the case, as time goes on, tensions rise between the two groups.
The neatest trick The New World pulls is flipping the script about two thirds of the way through. While the majority of the story is told from the perspective of Smith in his “new world,” the last act of the movie let’s us see Pocahontas’ own “new world” experience as she is exiled, joins the settler community, and eventually travels to England. As you know from history (like real, not Disney history), Smith peaces out and Pocahontas ends up marrying some nerd played by Christian Bale, who she loves or whatever but just isn’t ever going to be as cool as the other man. Nice guys finish last. After a meandering middle, seeing Pocahontas’ (and Opechancanough, another Powhatan played by Wes Studi) overwhelmed awe for England was the revitalizing finish I needed.
Look, a lot of people just don’t have the stomach for movies that are barely interested in the main characters. Malick is in his signature mode here, where he lets Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera wander away and immerse us in nature – sandy beaches, ancient trees, babbling brooks – while the actors deliver dreamy voiceover. It’s an unusual experience, because so much of movies is about trying to experience what the characters are going through and this is basically the opposite. We’re frequently taken so far away from the characters they have to tell us what they’re thinking. Emotions are not meant to be felt here, they are confusing defects of humanity meant to be analyzed. I’m not phrasing that right, as that makes The New World sound much more clinical than it is. Perhaps it’s better to say it’s a film less interested in the individual than it is the universal?
Regardless, if you’ve seen any of Malick’s other first five films, you probably know what to expect out of The New World. And that’s kind of my problem. When I hold it up against them, I’m not sure what makes this one particularly special? If I wanted a doomed romance, I’d watch Badlands. If I wanted supernaturally beautiful cinematography, I’d watch Days of Heaven. If I wanted a confusing cavalcade of movie stars, I’d watch The Thin Red Line. If I wanted to get philosophical, I’d watch The Tree of Life. Maybe that’s the problem with there being too many Terrence Malick movies? I’ll give him this: all those films are set in the past but The New World is uniquely Malick’s first to leave the 20th Century. And by a great deal too, like 300 years. So, to quote Carl Spackler, it’s got that goin’ for it, which is nice.