Terrence Malicks Brave New World
By Steven Snyder
While director Terrence Malick has hardly been prolific four films in four decades he has proven the old adage that it is quality, not quantity that really counts. Its a philosophy that Stanley Kubrick embraced, and one Steven Spielberg would be wise to heed. But Malicks four works, 1973s Badlands, 1978s Days of Heaven, 1998s The Thin Red Line and now this years The New World, are landmark accomplishments of a visionary artist, whose films look, sound and unfold unlike any other.
All of Malicks films focus on characters away from home in intense circumstances. In some sense, his works recast the world through the eyes of bruised souls who are open to the idea rediscovery and, more importantly, reinterpretation. Often that rediscovery leads these characters to look beyond the day-to-day squabbling of men to the larger ways of nature.
Days of Heaven, widely considered one of the most beautiful films ever made, filmed much of its action in the small window of time between sunset and nightfall. The much-acclaimed Thin Red Line painted war as dreamscape, an internal struggle to remain connected with humanity despite the depravity that war encourages.
In The New World, this theme reaches a boiling point. The characters at its center are three souls abandoned in new situations: Adventurers John Smith (Colin Farrell) and John Rolfe (Christian Bale), and Native American Pocahontas(QOrianka Kilcher), all crossing an ocean into a universe that none is quite ready to process or prepared to encounter.
The film is set in America circa the 17th century, as the first British boats reach the continent and encounter those they have come to supplant. But while other stories have covered similar territory before, using real-world drama as the ingredients for conventional stories of wars, conquests and love, Malick has a different agenda. The arrival of the ships, as he sees it, is an unnatural shift in the natural order. Its as if a virus or plague has descended on this pure landscape, one that will ravage everything it touches.
Beyond the metaphorical, he zeroes in on one romance that is the microcosm of these larger, shifting forces. When we are first introduced to Smith, he is a prisoner at sea, chained in the lower decks, trying to catch falling water with his hands. Contrast that with the introduction of Pocahontas, who strolls, arms outstretched, through the bountiful lands of her people.
Sun and shadow, chained and free, native and foreigner; separated by an interminable gulf this theme will repeat throughout the film in every imaginable form, first as the visitors from the east seek to establish camp, then as Smith is taken to live with their counterparts and falls for the woman he hardly knows, and finally as Pocahontas is taken back across the ocean to a life of civilized royalty.
But the dramatic worlds of Malick are inverted from the norm. In a typical review, these characters would be mentioned in the plot summary, and their world would serve solely as the background. But Malicks worlds, for better or worse, are more about the scenery than the foreground, more about the tides and time of the universe than the scene-to-scene flow of a story. The New York Times recently noted the lack of risk taking in modern Hollywood, but Malick is one of those directors that still swings big and aims high, and seeks to explore not run-of-the-mill dramas but spiritual poems that speak to the universal.
Just as Smith and Pocahontas love is doomed, so too are these two groups of people incapable of reaching across the divide. Never is this more richly captured than in Smiths return home to his comrades for the winter. Crossing through the gates of the British fort, leaving behind the rich, lush lands of Pocahontass free spirits, Smith is at once faced with the bitterness, rivalry and greed of his all-but-drooling compatriots, determined to strip their land of all vitality in search of gold and power.
The latter segments of the film, which highlight the tragic westernization of Pocahontas, further reiterate the larger theme of The New World: That Pocahontas, despite language, class or social rank, will always be the Other to Smith, always inaccessible.
For the literal-minded, The New World is surely an experience that will infuriate, since the revelations in this film are never underlined and the epiphanies never spelled out. As Malicks camera regards the trees, the fields, the souls of his characters via eyes or inner monologues, and always the ripples of the water, he creates a hypnotic motif of disconnect and love forsaken.
Its beautiful, and gloriously refreshing so unique, in fact, its hard to believe any studio actually gave him the money to craft such an unlikely achievement.