And Not Much Else In Terrence Malick’s Latest Purely Visual Experience
Terrence Malick is more interested in visuals than in storytelling, and in the crucial role of Pocahontas for his new picture, The New World, he cast Q’Orianka Kilcher, an astonishingly beautiful young teenager who can barely act. With her waist-length hair, broad eyes, Inca cheekbones, and athletic legs, Kilcher proves a spellbinding vision, whether she’s romping through the waist-high tidewater grasses or swimming through the turquoise waters of the James River. But she doesn’t have the acting chops to let us inside Pocahontas’ head. The result is a combination of beauty and opacity that defines the whole movie.
The New World depicts the first contact between British and Powhatan cultures in 1607, as Malick seeks to capture the strangeness of the Virginia landscape to the British and of the British to the Powhatan. In the largely wordless opening, the camera glides through the woods, catching trunks slicing up sunlight, wind turning leaves, the river dimpling with raindrops. When the Indians finally appear, moving in near-silence in their brown leather outfits and copper faces, they’re just one more aspect of the mesmerizing scenery.
But when they glance through the trees and see three large sailing ships anchored offshore, the sight is as alien as if three Alpha Centaurian spaceships had landed in the Inner Harbor. The large white sails, the massive wooden prows, and the pale-skinned soldiers clad in silvery armor look completely foreign in the landscape around them.
Because Malick has so successfully evoked the bewildering shock of first contact, we want to know what the participants on each side are thinking and feeling; we want a story of what happens next—precisely where The New World stumbles. The director is so enthralled by his own imagery that he can’t be bothered with character development or narrative momentum.
Unlike Kilcher, Colin Farrell, who plays Capt. John Smith, is a proven actor, but Malick is more interested in Farrell’s physical beauty and seductive baritone than in his acting. A 27-year-old soldier of fortune, Smith arrives in Virginia as a prisoner accused of insubordination, but he is soon freed so he can lead a dangerous mission to negotiate with the local Indians. His party wades into a seemingly empty cypress swamp where they are suddenly ambushed, and Smith is taken to an enormous building in a large village.
There he charms an infatuated teenager named Pocahontas, who intercedes when her father, the chief, threatens to kill Smith. Thus Smith survives to learn the ways of his captors and to enjoy an idyllic romance with his new girlfriend. But the romance is more like a 14-year-old girl’s fantasy than a real relationship; there’s lots of hugging but no real sex, lots of longing gazes but no real conversation. It’s as if, like that 14-year-old girl, Malick believes that genitals and ideas would only spoil things.
Malick’s vision of a new world populated by blissful innocents in an unspoiled paradise until invaded by insensitive brutes from abroad is a similar fantasy. Treating the Indians as flower children dehumanizes them as much as portraying them as bloodthirsty savages. To acknowledge their humanity, we’d have to admit that Indians have the same mix of lust, greed, idealism, humor, courage, and cowardice as any other group of people, including ourselves.
The movie continues at its leisurely pace with plenty of incident. An Indian attack on the British fort is undone by an informant and artillery. A mutiny within the fort is quelled by gunfire. Smith promises to always stay with Pocahontas, but then accepts an order to be sent away. She marries another Brit, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), and establishes a farm and family with him. She accompanies Rolfe to London, where she is exhibited to the court as a curiosity like the caged skunk and caged bald eagle.
These incidents, however, never benefit from dramatic buildup and payoff; they come out of nowhere and leave no lingering consequences. As a result, there’s no storytelling thrust, just one gorgeous shot after another. The characters more often speak in interior monologues than in actual dialogue, and their mumbly musings are difficult to decipher and unilluminating when they are heard—full of wistful poetry and rhetorical questions devoid of credible motivation.
Since The New World was screened for critics, Malick cut 16 minutes from its running time. That should help, but it won’t solve the fundamental problem. It’s not as if the movie alternated between exciting passages and dull sections; it is a seamless whole of romantic fantasy and opaque beauty—the first failure of Malick’s odd career, and only because he allows the visuals to overwhelm the storytelling.