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.
Terence Malick’s The New World is a sloppy, messy film that is dragged down by its own sense of profundity. It’s a film about Pocahontas where that name is never uttered. It’s a film that seeks to undermine every bit of plot advancement with meandering and pointless shots of nothing in particular. The New World plays like a very, very long parody of what a Terence Malick film is.
Colin Farrell is John Smith, an English rogue and explorer who comes to the shores of America in chains. He and a small group of Englishmen are setting up a colony in what will one day be Virginia, but the living ain’t easy. They’re surrounded by Indian tribes, inquisitive and a little hostile, known to the English as “Naturals.” The English apparently aren’t all that great at farming, and they just don’t have enough supplies.
An expedition into Indian country ends up with John Smith living among the Naturals for a time – it’s the best part of the film. Here he meets and falls in love with Pocahontas, played by the very beautiful and very underage newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher, and learns the ways of the native peoples. Malick’s languorous style is welcome here as we luxuriate in the lush greens and loamy browns of the countryside, and are captivated by the color and vibrancy of the Natural camp.
But the time comes for John Smith to return home, and the movie just flies off the rails. I understand what Malick is doing here – he is contrasting the decrepit mud pit of the English fort with the beauty of the Natural camp – but after a while I had processed it and just wanted to move on. The film loses all its energy here, and even a shoddily staged battle between the English and the Naturals can’t pick things up.
The mood gets grimmer when Pocahontas gets kicked out of her tribe and moves in with the English. The New World drags along for a while like this, with very little dialogue but plenty of annoying whispery voice-over, a la Dune (who knew the Gom Jabbar was an Indian custom?), until Christian Bale suddenly shows up and you’re completely shocked. Hasn’t this film been going on for two hours already? Isn’t it a little late to be introducing one of the co-stars?
Yes, it is. It’s an interesting conceit to switch everything up at the beginning of the third act – Farrell takes off and Bale shows up – but in practice all it does is draw your attention to how long it’s taken to get this far, and to start you wondering how much more is in store for you.
What’s worse is that Bale’s wasted. His character has no depth – he’s exactly as great as you think he is. A real sensitive, modern dude smack dab in the middle of 16whatever. He’s a good foil for Colin Farrell – who despite bad notices from other critics I found good in the role, mainly because he has a natural rawness that works for John Smith. I rarely felt like he was acting, which may be what other critics bristled at – but the two almost never share a frame of film. It’s like Heat, but if Pacino and DeNiro bumped into each other at a men’s room door. Bale is left to anchor the third act (because as lovely as Kilcher is, she’s utterly blank), and he just can’t do it with this character.
The narrative of The New World is so slack that I don’t think it even counts as one. There are events that take place in a chronological order, sure, but they just seem to happen. I kept wishing Malick would shit or get off the pot – either make a movie with a story or just dispense of the charade altogether. He’s obviously very interested in the visual elements of the film and the people, and everything looks great, but Gus Van Sant has really beat him to the punch with his Bela Tarr-influenced trilogy. I sat through Last Day’s lack of incident happily because the film wasn’t pretending to be something it wasn’t. The New World maintains the pretence that it’s the story of America’s first great love, but Malick obviously couldn’t be less interested in it. Just film a bunch of Indians and colonists walking around for two hours – I guarantee we in the critical corps would be dumbfounded enough to call it a masterpiece.
Of course many are calling this film a great work, and I’m glad that they were able to get something out of it. By the end of The New World all I had were flashbacks to Mystery Science Theater as I hissed at the screen, Tom Servo style, “End! End!”