This review refers to a cut of the film that may not be seen in theaters in wide release next January. It is the cut that is opening this weekend in selected cities.
Watching a Terrence Malick movie, I get the idea the he’s deliberately trying to tear down old mythologies. Whether he’s intentionally replacing the old with his own or doing so out of instinct I can’t figure. The process is transparent in The New World, which reconstructs the romance between the colonist Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) amid the Virginia settlement of Jamestown.
Like most stories of the American frontier, this one has been recast dozens of times. Pocahontas has been a princess, a noble savage, a tamed beast, a romantic heroine. Malick cherrypicks from those to create his version: the gorgeous, spirited daughter of the native leader into whose lands British colonists trespass. Of course, we never hear the character called Pocahontas — that would be too much like the stories Malick is tearing down.
And who needs names when living in paradise? Her people, the Powhatan, are unquestionably the caretakers of this new world. They lead a perfect life in tune with the land. We’re meant to idolize their simple life and understand the justified paranoia at the English arrival. This isn’t Disney’s insipid romance, but it is romanticism all the same.
Malick shows less favor towards the English, and spares no ill will towards the colonists. Their persons and settlement are dirty, chaotic. John Smith, the erstwhile hero, arrives in chains. Malick’s scorn for the settlement is no more evident than when he cuts from the clean, glorious Powhatan to Jamestown, revealing mud, bloody infighting and surly children. (Where did they come from?) Civilization, he says, is a crock of shit and these people are too stupid to know they’re squandering a chance to escape it.
The comparisons Malick makes are simplistic and reductive. They’re barely worth an outline, much less a feature. Should we mourn for the lost purity of a continent? Sure. But how about doing so with more complexity and honesty than the movie’s tagline? (‘Once discovered, it was changed forever’ for those not keeping track.)
As you know, the English decide to stick around. Stuck in the marsh, they send a party led by Smith upriver to find the king who might trade then enough supplies to survive. But their guides are treacherous, the party murdered, and Smith taken captive.
He’s not bound for long. Colin Farrell’s got such dreamy eyes; how could anyone hold him in chains? The king’s daughter wants him loose. Soon she and Smith are enjoying a frolicsome romance in the grass. All in a manner that rejects narrative, mind you; as ever the director’s storytelling is…I almost typed the word ‘elusive’ there, but I don’t want to imply that there’s something here to catch.
The romance seems chaste, but that’s probably due to Q’Orianka Kilcher, who at 14 was too young to get it on with Farrell. It’s best to accept that Malick is going to dedicate half his running time to the land’s beauty — swaying trees, hands brushing through grass. You’d hope that constraints on shooting his stars would pressure the filmmaker into finding captivating ways to draw beauty out of his romance as well. Instead he films Smith and Pocahontas like he’s writing a LiveJournal. Malick’s famously minimal dialogue could be reduced to text message subtitles: I <3 U.
Malick’s casting choices aren’t always reliable. He obviously lost faith in Adrian Brody, and Travolta was his first real pick to star in Days of Heaven. Farrell just seems like studio insurance. Malick can make his arty movie so long as Colin acts as bait for the audience that would otherwise never show up.
It’s Farrell’s chance to impress. He doesn’t. On occasion he’s demonstrated a flair for expression, but as John Smith he’s stuck on ‘wounded’. Farrell’s Smith is a man of no character, never able to make a decision or step up to the plate. He’s weak, an opportunistic fool for love, and finally pathetic. Watching him is a chore.
He hasn’t got a hope against Kilcher, whose gorgeously imperfect features capture the natural beauty she’s meant to represent. (Christian Bale fares much better, but it’s way too late for resuscitation when he arrives.)
Through Kilcher, Pocahontas is full of life, even when she’s forced into English society. I wish Malick had been able to perform a transfusion to invigorate his movie. His craft is on coast. The New World is the same movie he’s made before, gone hollow.
At nearly three hours, that’s a lot of empty space. Malick is currently re-cutting the film, but can he add enough to make his telling worth enduring Colin Farrell? More to the point, can he create more than yet another romanticized fable? The story of Smith and Pocahontas could become a refreshed myth for a culturally conscious age. As Malick has shown it so far, it’s just pretty, dull escapism.
6.5 out of 10