Confession: I am a Terrence Malick virgin. While that may not register as orange-alert-level news, for a self-proclaimed film buff and movie snob, it ranks an oversight. Malick has a culty following among many Hollywoodites and critics who admire his singularly unique approach to filmmaking. If you haven’t heard of him, that’s not such a surprise; he’s even further off the beaten pat than indie/cult faves like David Lynch (Mulholland Drive), Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights) and Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream). Adding to Malick’s artsy-fartsy mystique is the fact that he has only made four films in his thirty-two years as a director.
The New World defies convention in virtually every way. The movie is structured more like a lyrical poem, and narrative as we know it gets thrown out the window. The story follows the arrival of English settlers in Virginia in 1607 and the growing relationship between Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) and John Smith (Colin Farrell). The telling of that story is anything but standard as Malick often eschews dialogue in favor of imagery and sparse voiceover narration.
The film is beautiful to look at, and the editing gives it a nice textured effect. In addition to James Horner’s lovely score, the film is blanketed with a natural soundscape from start to finish. Birds, wind, twigs snapping, footsteps and a host of other sounds meld together with the lush photography to create a genuine sense of time and place. Furthermore, the film captures a real beauty and mystery in Native American life, which is a nice change from the ooga-booga native stereotypes in Peter Jackson’s King Kong.
These sensory delights, while pleasant, are not enough to save this vague, unstructured historical-romance/drug trip. The New World balances intrigue and utter boredom in a way that few films have. The last notable telling of this story was Disney?s whitewashed 1995 animated feature Pocahontas and, sadly, it might be a better film. There are many parallels between the two. Irene Bedard, who was the voice and physical model for the animated Pocahontas turns up in a small role here. Another voice in that version, Christian Bale (AKA Batman), has a minor role late in Malick’s film as John Rolfe, creating a kind of love triangle. Finally, Kilcher (who is a cousin of folk-pop singer Jewel) bears a remarkable resemblance to her animated predecessor.
As Pocahontas, Kilcher is charming and it is easy to believe that everyone would be beguiled by her. Yet, after awhile, she starts coming across as a beautiful object that the men in the film keep passing around (Emmy Rossum’s role in last years The Phantom of the Opera has similar limitations). Say what you will about Disney’s simplistic, focus-group-friendly take on Pocahontas at least she had some fire in her belly. Malick paints Kilcher into a corner by making her a fragile victim. Moreover, while her charms are evident, costar Farrell’s are curiously absent. Ireland’s scrappy bad boy is sullen and blank-faced throughout, shrouded in late-’80s-Mickey-Rourke-greaseball hair. After awhile, you wonder what the heck the Native American princess sees in this uncharismatic moper. When Bale turns up in his thankless role as Rolfe, he easily outcharms Farrell, throwing the film further off balance. I?m not convinced Farrell is a movie star and his miscasting in this role robs him of whatever scrappy mojo he has going for him Did I mention the film is long? At two and half hours (trust me, I was checking my watch), the movie easily meanders over an hour past its expiration date, weighed down by countless repetitive shots of running water, sunny horizons and actors staring at each other like the misplaced zombies from 28 Days Later. The emotions are so muted that it?s hard to engage with the characters or what happens to them. Everything is so quiet, it makes a Merchant Ivory movie seem like War of the Worlds by comparison.
When the Academy Award nominations are handed out next week, I doubt that The New World will sneak its way into the major categories like Malick’s last film, 1998’s The Thin Red Line. Despite the inevitable fawning from critics who get tickled by this kind of rambling art-house snoozefest, The New World is ultimately best described as the film equivalent of one of those natural-sounds relaxation CDs: soothing, hypnotic, calming to the senses, but ultimately empty and sleep-inducing.
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