Terrence Malick goes four-for-four with The New World, his latest unqualified masterwork (following Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line) about Europeans’ arrival on the American continent in 1607. A sumptuous tone poem of epic emotional proportions, Malick’s latest in many ways structurally evokes 1998’s Line, with which it shares not only countless breathtaking images – including pastures with high grass waving gently in the wind, sunlight twinkling through a forest’s lush canopy, and crouched warriors rushing toward unholy combat – but also an affection for, and lyrical attunement to, the mysterious, life-giving power of the natural world. A tale of diametric conflicts in which destruction and creation, constriction and freedom, become symbiotically knotted, Malick’s cinematic reimagining of the primitive Native American nation’s initiation into modernity exhibits a realism seemingly so free of artifice and guile that, although the director’s trademarks are visible from the opening sight of petals flowing on the tranquil surface of a cascading river, it nevertheless feels less like a manipulative man-made construction than like a piece of organically produced art.
That rare filmmaker whose work truly warrants the label “spiritual,” Malick finds myriad ways of modestly conveying the world’s, and man’s, kindness and cruelty, two opposing forces that form the crux of The New World’s central, ill-fated romance between insubordinate soldier John Smith (Colin Farrell) and native princess Pocahontas (newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher). Malick’s vision of this crucial historical turning point is at once intrinsically tied up in, and unconcerned with, factual accuracy, using the momentous landing of European explorers (led by Christopher Plummer’s Captain Newport) as the foundation for his rumination on the relationship between ruin and renewal that colored the country’s 17th century origins. The foreigners’ appearance is at once the beginning of an end (for the natives’ tranquil society, somewhat over-idealized as being unsullied by negative human impulses like greed and deceit) and the beginning of a beginning (for the soon-to-be English colony and, subsequently, the U.S.), a state of flux mirrored by Smith’s budding relationship with Pocahontas, which leads to disgraced banishment for both (from their respective tribes) and yet ultimately concludes with a spark of personal rebirth.
Crafted with editorial ellipses that subtly amplify the weight of their tender, playful passion, Smith and Pocahontas’ evolving courtship becomes a symbolic reflection of the larger (contentious) frontier exploration and discovery taking place around them. And Malick binds both his personal and national sagas of progress to the movement of the natural world itself via ethereal imagery of running water, wind-rocked meadows, and flocks of birds soaring in twisting rhythm. All is inextricably linked in The New World’s romantically humanistic mise-en-scène, comprised of Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeously contemplative cinematography, James Horner’s rapturous score, and an enveloping sound design (comprised of rustling tree branches, crashing waves and chirping birds). As in his past films, Malick’s storytelling is a model of visual exposition, his script’s ruminative narration (spoken by numerous unidentified characters, and always coming across as interior monologues) employed as an expressive underline rather than a descriptive device. Truly breathtaking are the graceful, informal brushstrokes (such as a crazy-eyed soldier’s camera-addressing, spittle-spewing tirade) used to create his depictions of longing, separation, and madness. And yet although an impressionistic filmmaker for whom tone, rhythm and the interplay between light and dark are as important as plot coherence, Malick’s narrative nonetheless moves along with surprising chronological clarity.
Both Farrell and Kilcher complement Malick’s ethereal, sensory-sensitive direction, using their rough and lithe physicality, respectively, to silently articulate their psychological and emotional conditions. Kilcher in particular is a marvel, a serene beauty who communicates with a come-hither sway of her hips (an act in accord with the tall grass surrounding her) the ecstasy of unfettered independence, and, with a piercingly forthright glance, the grief wrought from amorous deception. Yet the uniformly transfixing performances are often peripheral components of Malick’s achingly affecting aesthetic, which time and again radiates a sense of unions and fissures through seemingly offhand images, whether it be natives placing painted handprints over their bare-chested brethren’s hearts (a display of communal kinship contrasted with Farrell’s enclosing suit of armor) or Pocahontas learning English with letter blocks (a scene followed by her arm-raised corporeal dialogue with mother Earth). The New World shrewdly portrays Western Europeans’ entry with ambivalence, refusing to neither wholeheartedly celebrate nor vilify the ramifications of their burgeoning colony but, rather, to view it as part and parcel of a world in which invention often necessitates demolition.
Collisions between man and nature, civilization and primitivism – both familiar Malick preoccupations – are the film’s lifeblood, and thus its shifting perspectives never disorient because they all ultimately point toward the same portrait of unavoidable social and interpersonal confrontation. Having been deserted by Smith, schooled to be an Englishwoman named “Rebecca,” and married to a kindhearted settler named John Rolfe (Christian Bale), Pocahontas is invited to have an audience with the English King and Queen, and here Malick’s illustration of man’s misguided refusal to seek harmony with nature achieves a state of poetic splendor. Decked out in confining frippery, Pocahontas respectfully bows to His Majesty in an ornate receiving room but finds herself drawn to, and identifying with, a caged fox, and Malick – in perhaps the most brilliant juxtaposition in a film defined by them – cuts to a perplexed fellow Native American (Wes Studi) examining the castle garden’s meticulously manicured trees. Both stunning images of man’s foolish desire to control and reshape nature, The New World finds tragedy in civilization’s estrangement from its environment. And yet as the liberation and resurrection signifiers which emblazon the film’s conclusion also fittingly confirm, only through devastation can there be rejuvenation.