Nature takes precedence over dialogue in Malick’s quiet New World

By Matt Johnston

Pocahontas was America’s first homegrown international celebrity. In 1616, she traveled with her husband to meet King James in England, where she was dubbed the “Indian Princess.” Terrence Malick’s The New World revolves around her, but it isn’t her story so much as a beautiful portrait of the untouched earth and the inevitability of cultural clash. Pocahontas appeals to us as a heroine because we think of her as a love-struck ambassador, the savior-turned-lover of John Smith and a thoroughly cosmopolitan woman, who can sing and dance to boot…at least according to the Disney movie, which has no doubt provided the bulk of many Americans’ knowledge of Jamestown history. In fact, Pocahontas was no more than 12 years old when she met John Smith, and there is little concrete evidence to confirm the legend of her life-saving grace.

Malick, who wrote and directed this version of the story, is no more interested in history than the average moviegoer, so these details slide into the background. He fudges her age and the fact that she probably did not learn English until after John Smith went back to England. Further artistic license is used to fill in the many unknowns. But that’s OK. The romance of history is here a springboard for an allegory of love, violence, and conformity.

This is only Malick’s fourth feature, following 1998’s critically acclaimed but only marginally watchable The Thin Red Line. On the strength of his three previous films, he has developed an excellent reputation, leading Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times to call him “the least prolific, most interesting director working today.” “Interesting” may seem like an odd word choice to many of you, since Malick is slow and methodical and maybe even a little, dare I say, boring. However, this time around, the style is pitch-perfect for the subject matter.

In many ways, The New World is a nature film. Its scenery is vast and incredible while remaining frightening and eerie. Nearly every shot reminds us how very empty and chaotic the Americas must have felt to early colonists. Their story feels like a footnote, a speck of dust on a massive timeline. Dialogue is limited to a few conversations, and actors’ screen time is abbreviated by discontinuous editing reminiscent of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville. Often, months are summarized in a few telling shots. Yet, somehow, these aren’t clichéd montages. The film remains careful and observant even as it dashes through time.

Pocahontas is portrayed by newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher, who was only 14 years old when filming began. She positively exudes an energy on par with the grandeur of nature surrounding her. Unlike Keisha Castle-Hughes of Whale Rider, to whom she is being compared, Kilcher is a mature screen presence, appropriately cast as a woman who has to grow up very quickly. She never feels like a kid in costumes, but always like an adult of surprising youth. Her transition into a soft-spoken, obedient woman is doubly tragic because Kilcher has so completely convinced us of her vivaciousness.

The other characters are not half as interesting as Pocahontas. While the rest of the cast is solid, it is not particularly memorable. Christopher Plummer is more awake here than he was a few weeks ago in Syriana. He is appropriately crestfallen as he carries the weight of the new world. Christian Bale, who tends to gravitate toward unforgettable characters, is surprising as a very dull man indeed. Colin Farrell, as John Smith, is a better actor than his bad-boy image would suggest. This time around, he is not up to the high standards he set with Minority Report, but he is no disaster either. Neither Farrell nor anyone else is called upon to express very much emotion. The film’s feel of futile inevitability does not lend itself to nomination-worthy performances. It is very much to their credit that none of the leads seek to call unnecessary attention to themselves.

Ultimately, The New World is deceptively quiet. Audiences will likely balk at its lack of emphasis on plot or characters and have difficulty with its muted climax. They will also feel that the cinematography places too much emphasis on birds and trees, expecting, perhaps, more overt eroticism. Audiences will, in other words, be wrong. What is interesting in Malick’s work is what operates below the surface. In that department, The New World is rich in sexual tension, moral conflict, and anguish. It is deeply disquieting, leaving the attentive audience feeling brutalized, but mentally and emotionally better for the wear.