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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "The New World" (2005)

“There is only this. All else is unreal,” muses John Smith. “This” refers to a number of things, chief among them: Love, land and the spirit that exists within. Terrence Malick’s “The New World” is about—among many, many other things—one woman’s quest for that spirit. She finds traces of it within true love and within the beautiful landscape, but has yet to find it within herself. The woman is, of course, Pocahontas and she refers to this spirit as “mother.” As one of several daughters to a tribal chief, Pocahontas has never known her real mother, but one gets the sense that this search for “mother” carries many more meanings for her and it’s really not all that surprising to see where this quest takes her.

This is not an overt quest (is it ever?), but then Terrence Malick does not have a reputation for being straightforward. “The New World” is not just about the relationship that developed between John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher), but about love as a metaphysical entity within a natural landscape that has yet to be tainted by greed and ownership. It’s a depiction of love in its purest form between two people who come from two different worlds, but who share a poetic commonality. It is not about the peaceful, tree-hugging Native Americans and the savage, land-stealing Americans, but about the re-discovery of the world around us. If you want overt and phony sentiment, rent the Disney movie.

This version of the story goes beyond that of John Smith and Pocahontas. It starts with Smith and his fleet arriving in Virginia and follows Smith and Pocahontas’s progressive and ultimately tragic love story to its bitter end. The Native Americans (or “Naturals” as they’re sometimes called) and the Settlers have their battles, but they seem secondary to both Smith and Pocahontas as they discover new worlds within themselves. Smith immerses himself with The Naturals and becomes familiar with their customs while he teaches Pocahontas the English language. Both the Settlers and the Naturals feel this temporary arrangement can be beneficial to both sides, provided the English eventually leave.

Naturally, they don’t. More arrive and this puts the love that grew between Smith and Pocahontas to a greater test. Both sides disapprove of the union between the two, but no one can seem to stop it, which results in a demeaning trade-off that casts Pocahontas out of her element and into the world of the Settlers, where she must now wear corsets and dresses and be taught more English and Christianity. Smith, meanwhile, must leave the continent on another mission, which leaves her stranded and under the watchful, loving eyes of landowner John Wolfe (Christian Bale).

That’s the story (the first two acts anyway) in its most basic form. Essentially, the movie is about quests and discoveries. With “The Thin Red Line,” Malick posed questions about the roots of evil within our humanity and how that manifests itself, particularly in wartime when really “it’s all about property.” With “The New World,” the same kinds of questions get asked, but about love. Can it sustain when one person knows one fate and the other person knows another? If love is a natural force, can it grow as high as the highest tree, or will it always be in danger of being cut down? What the English plan for the land, they most likely will plan for John Smith and Pocahontas. Again, it’s all about property.

The discovery of this new land, Smith and Pocahontas’s discovered love for one another and the final discovery of the spirit “mother” exist at the film’s emotional center. They become linked together in exhilarating sequences aided by Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” which grows and flourishes into sublime crescendos while Emmanuel Lubezki’s exquisite 65mm cinematography glides through the landscape and riversides. These are answers to big questions. What lurks over the horizon? Is there a word for this strange, unfamiliar attraction? And what is at the heart of it? Where is this spirit that guides us? If not within ourselves, perhaps within someone else close to us? Even born from us?

In life, the answers vary for everyone. True to his form, Malick does not set these questions up only to provide easy answers for them, nor does he set up the story to be told in a conventional fashion. Malick has never been interested in spinning a yarn or setting up phony emotional pay-offs. A Malick movie has the same ebb and flow of an epic poem or a Shakespeare sonnet, each gesture and visual contributing a verse. The story becomes secondary to the bigger questions about ourselves, our place within Mother Nature’s scheme of things and how we conduct ourselves in that place while destroying the place itself.

That is not to say the story gets shortchanged. Unlike “The Thin Red Line,” Malick’s new film has a more centralized feel to it. It focuses on only a few characters instead of having random characters wander in and out of the framework. Farrell and Kilcher have a beautiful, almost wordless rapport that doesn’t depend solely on sweet, loving glances or lustful desperation. The love depicted between them rings true and pure, all while the burden of that love continues to grow and pry them apart.

That is also not to say that audiences will like the film. Malick is an acquired taste and either you like what he does or you don’t. Either you gravitate towards his unconventional approach to filmmaking, or you’d rather he take as much time away from the camera as possible (there’s a 20 year gap between Malick’s “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line”). I know several critics who don’t like his films at all and I can understand their dislike. Malick sets himself up for this sharp divide. He does not make movies that are crowd-pleasing or easily digestible. You get out of his movies what you put into them. Personally, I love his movies, but I admit it took a while before I did.

Perhaps I love this movie for the same reason I love all great movies, because of the sense of discovery that comes with seeing a densely layered work of art for the first time, a work that speaks personally to one’s heart and mind. Perhaps it’s because Malick’s movies have a way of awakening the senses and enrapturing the viewer in a world untainted by our own superficialities. Because he reminds you that the natural beauty of this world still exists. It’s just that most movies won’t go there. Because he reminds us that when all is said and done, there really is only “this.” All else is unreal.

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