The New World reshaped an American origin story in the style of its creator

The New World reshaped an American origin story in the style of its creator

“A world equal to our hopes. A land where one might wash one’s soul pure. Rise to one’s true stature. We shall make a new start, a fresh beginning. Here, the blessings of the Earth are bestowed upon all.” —Capt. John Smith, The New World

“We’re born to die. Our remains seep into the water and soil and feed the trees.” —Matt Zoller Seitz

Watching a Terrence Malick film means being reminded that we live in the natural world, much as we try to sculpt it, obfuscate it, or merely take it for granted in our everyday lives. This has been true since Malick’s 1973 debut feature Badlands situated a Bonnie And Clyde-style crime thriller within the heartland’s arid expanses, and it’s been truer with each successive film, as he’s continued to shed the conventions of narrative, moving toward a more purely abstract and poetic style. And though he’s also been shedding viewers in the process—his latest, To The Wonder, slid to Magnolia Pictures after a rough (albeit off-base and appallingly disrespectful) reception on the festival circuit—that refinement has brought him closer to becoming the filmmaker the essence of his work has always suggested. The context changes from project to project—from the grand-scale conflict of the Pacific Theater and the founding of the Jamestown Settlement to the more intimate institutions of marriage and family—but humanity’s relationship to nature remains the overarching theme in each. To Malick, the planet’s most basic elements—those that sustain life and survive death—are not to be ignored, because they dwarf all other concerns. Where other films show humans paddling furiously upstream, Malick’s show the river, too. 

After 1998’s The Thin Red Line brought him back to filmmaking following a 20-year absence, Malick took another seven years before The New World, and the two films feel as closely connected as Akira Kurosawa’s late-period epics Kagemusha and Ran. The contrast in scale isn’t as significant, but The New World expands and complicates the clashing of cultures in an arena of untarnished natural beauty. In both films, there’s the visceral feeling that the conflict between men is a violation of nature, as it slashes and burns through landscapes of impossible lushness and tranquility. (Werner Herzog would say that the sounds of nature are less about harmony than “chaos, hostility, and murder,” but perhaps some of that had to do with his frustrated attempts to tame it during the notorious filming of Fitzcarraldo.) But while there’s no question that Malick’s hippie idealism informs The New World, particularly the ecstatic romance that develops between Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, he’s also profoundly empathetic to the dreams and foibles of civilization—that attempt to impose order and harmony to a world that resists. Sometimes the well-intentioned just make a mess of things. 

Before Malick emerged from the wilderness with The Thin Red Line, his two features, Badlands and 1978’s Days Of Heaven, existed comfortably in an age where the auteur inmates ran the Hollywood asylum—with studios like MGM bankrolling films like Brewster McCloud, the period was uniquely accommodating to offbeat sensibilities with a counterculture bent. In 1998 and beyond, however, Malick has looked like a man out of time, which is to say he’s making timeless films. And when a great director falls out of step with commercial expectations, that’s fertile ground for a cult following. 

The cult of Malick rallied around The New World on The House Next Door, an influential blog started by former New York Press film critic (and current Vulture TV critic) Matt Zoller Seitz that harvested a number of talented writers, including A.V. Club TV editor Todd VanDerWerff. (Slant has since absorbed it as its official blog.) Seitz called The New World “easily the most pictorially innovative and moving American studio release” he’d seen in the 15 years he’d been reviewing films professionally, and the film proved, for Seitz and other contributors, to be a wellspring of inspiration, setting off piece after piece that dissected the various cuts of the film, scrutinized details like Malick’s specific use of Jamestown-era birdsong, and launched into critical dialogues and reveries. The New World was Seitz’s “new religion,” and he and his disciples scrutinized it with a monastic fervor. 

The film bears that scrutiny well, too, both for Malick’s radical staging of American myth and for the inviting openness that characterizes all his work—a philosopher by education, he raises basic questions about existence and teases out complicated responses. The New World examines nothing short of the promise of America, and what happened when civilization first tarred its shores. Yet it’s not as crudely or simply drawn as that makes it sound. The flawed but striving spirit at the heart of the film belongs to Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell), who travels as a captive aboard the three English ships chartered to colonize “the New World,” but spends much of his time oscillating between freedom and bondage, from within and without. Pardoned upon their arrival by the fair-minded Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer), who needs his know-how to make the settlement work, Smith is tasked with helping ease tensions and open up trade with “the naturals,” a Powhatan tribe that has understandably greeted them with suspicion and hostility. 

Assigned to lead an expedition upriver, Smith instead gets captured by the Native Americans and brought before Chief Powhatan (August Schellenberg), who questions him and orders his execution. But before the blade falls, the chief’s favorite daughter, the transcendently beautiful Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) intervenes and convinces her father to keep Smith alive. Like a lot of decisions in The New World, it’s one where noble intentions eventually lead to tragic consequences. Smith happily immerses himself in Powhatan ritual and falls in love with Pocahontas, but their bliss is a dream that has to end—or at least that’s what Smith tells himself. When he returns to the Jamestown fortress, now a disease-riddled mud-pit of starving, irritable colonists, Smith’s usefulness again trumps questions about his loyalty. But when a hard winter further devastates the settlers, Pocahontas responds with an act of generosity that sustains them to the spring, but leads to her banishment and an attack on Jamestown. 

The New World unfolds less in acts than in movements, with Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold used to demarcate distinct sections of the film and suggest, through its tremulous, yawning horns, the birth of some miraculous force. Malick keeps the dialogue to a minimum—though he rarely gets enough credit for how good some of those exchanges are—and relegates most of the talk to internal monologue. Malick has used voiceover his entire career, but since the naïfs that narrated Badlands and Days Of Heaven, he has embraced voiceover as a choral effect, with all the major characters airing their thoughts and desires, and some communing with a higher power. This gives Malick and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, the freedom to let the camera drink in all the beauty it can find, without having to be tethered to scripted scenes. Actors have grumbled about their lack of input into the process—or, in cases like Adrien Brody in The Thin Red Line, their total absence—but there’s a purity of expression that’s unique to Malick, and sequences like The New World’s opening convey all the essential information in majestic fashion. This is the birth of a nation: 

A common complaint with Malick is that his quest for the transcendent makes his work banal and simplistic, flattening the psychological complexity of real human beings, to say nothing of the gross, earthy business of everyday life. And it’s true that The New World draws broad contrasts between the “civil” and the “savage,” with “the naturals” frolicking in perfect syncopation with their environment, while the settlers try to force Old World trappings onto a new place, from a barren fort severed from sustaining resources to the heavy armor that leaves them vulnerable to their fleet adversaries. Yet the mingling of cultures presents enormous complications and ambiguous outcomes: The love between Smith and Pocahontas may have devastating consequences, but Malick respects the endeavor on both ends, and finds something undeniably productive about their union. Certain villains like Capt. Newport or Mary (Janine Duvitski), an Englishwoman who teaches Pocahontas the formalities of British fashion and culture, are rendered with profound empathy. Neither of them seeks to play the oppressor—Newport sees the practical value in maintaining a friendly relationship with “the naturals,” and Mary sees herself as a motherly advocate for an Indian princess—but the forces of history dictate their roles. For all of Malick’s rapture about getting back to nature (“I thought it was a dream, what we knew in the forest. It’s the only truth.”), he understands the impulse to tame it just as keenly. 

For Americans, The New World has a primal force that comes partly from the exalted images Malick and Lubezki put on the screen and partly from the knowledge that the America we know now—the one with Sonic burger joints carved into the landscape, as one is in To The Wonder—is a much different place. Malick seeks to show Jamestown as the site of original sin, when settlers found a paradise that stretched generously into the horizon and lost it to old ways of thinking. Still, The New World’s tone cannot be described as mournful, because beauty, love, and the miracles of life persist even amid death and destruction. Pocahontas dies at the end of The New World, but there are no rending of garments, no efforts to underline the tragedy of her story. The film opens and closes with the same images: water rippling, birds chirping, trees shimmering in the sun. Life goes on. 


Coming up: 
December 20: Pump Up The Volume
January 10: [REC]
January 31: Zoolander

More The New Cult Canon