The New World
2005Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Colin Farrell, Q’Orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale
istorical drama means history shoehorned into drama. The New World, by this definition, is not historical drama. Terrence Malick readily accepts the entropy of fact—what his idol, Heidegger, might call the “thingness of things”—and searches for a poetic form to encase that entropy in ember. Malick succeeds in letting what happens happen, in allowing John Smith to leave Pocahontas’ life and for John Rolfe to enter. Sadly, he fails at bringing anyone down from the twin clouds of Love and Loss, at gaining distance from the open-minded, free-thinking ideal they embody. Malick’s figures have become gluttons for contemplation, leaving little for their audience to chew on.
Perhaps I’m a little over-hungry myself: Gawky 14-year-old Sky H. discovered cinema-as-art in Malick acolyte David Gordon Green’s George Washington, excited by, but then unable to express, its substitution of empathy with association. Malick’s films, at their best, overwhelm because they refract rather than reflect our emotional conundrums, as embodied in the metaphor of the crooked mirror Smith hands Pocahontas in loving pledge. When Holly insists Kit isn’t interested in sex in Badlands shortly before he deflowers her, is she the embryonic Holly of Then, the enlightened Holly of Now, or some mystical purveyor of eternal youth, prolonging naivete to infinity? That film, Malick’s sole masterpiece, soared for its ability to pack limitless perceptual ambiguity in compact nuggets of narration-vs.-image counterpoint. I might’ve said I prefer Malick’s ‘70s work to The Thin Red Line because Malick’s cutting grew more exalted and ergo less precise, the work of a Tazmanian Devil loose in a diamond mine, juggling a theme too many. But a second viewing of New World reveals a self-asserting monster, Sartrean nausea turned complacent in a spin cycle of fruitless reiteration.
That nausea is the source behind Smith’s love for and renunciation of Pocahontas. He surrenders to his circumstances with a passivity that initially promises exhilaration in its Freedom; rarely has a gaze outside prison bars been so heedlessly optimistic. As played by Colin Farrell, Smith’s terror in confronting the natives and pleasure in partaking in their rituals are of a piece, all part of a joyously spontaneous spiritual journey. “What voice speaks within me?” is Smith’s plea upon treading new waters; a rainbow of feelings beckon, fade, and God is to be blamed and thanked. Malick’s “flowing” steadicam tracking shots and foreground implanting of the searcher in question are stylistically unerring, affirming Smith the Wanderer. Well and good.
But the voice-overs that once made Malick’s cinema lighter than air now weigh them down, words rendering images redundant: Smith’s exaltation of Pocahontas is ours as well. He calls her the favorite child of a hundred, and left with her father’s unambiguous affection and no siblings to compare her to, we helplessly shrug and nod. Overwhelmed by her affection, Smith implores, “Shall we not take what we are given?” Again, sure, yes, John, go ahead, take her, if you please—you’re not offering much fodder in the way of discourse. The rare refutable declaration offers refutation only much later (e.g. Smith’s promise of a utopic commonwealth, or Pocahontas’ promise to be faithful and true). But even in those cases, we’re dealing with flat ignorance, not childish daydreaming: Smith has yet to encounter David Thewlis’ raging tyrant, and Pocahontas yet to be swooned by Christian Bale’s seducer. Fully reasoned, Malick’s narration offers no gateway inside.
Instead of straying too far off rational course, these chameleons recalibrate their impressions in light of malleable surroundings: when Smith is separated from Pocahontas, he begins to examine his own intentions, trying to sustain the illusion of infatuation and coming up empty—did he “make” or “let” her love him? Is he questioning a romance colored by the monolith of cultural infiltration, or merely fastening a self-imposed chastity belt of depressive guilt? The answer is irrelevant; either way, we accept Smith’s faith and his self-doubt as they pass, never allowed a third perspective. And I’m sorry, but on a personal note, I can’t especially relate. A month after a mere pair of incredible dates, my faith increases in a girl whose face fades, and I freely admit to such faith being trivial (not to mention that the Boston cold even mirrors the icy desolation Smith glimpses outside his cabin away from Pocahontas!)These people are too absorptive, too inextricable from their environment, and not especially unique from one another or even their former selves: Pocahontas once Rises with Smith, then later Flows with Rolfe, blurring the line between variable incantation and tampon commercial.
Considering the accolades The New World is receiving elsewhere, I wonder if Malick has honed his technique into a kind of “rigorous bliss” I simply find inaccessible, a philosophical resolve to accept fleeting sensations I make a point of avoiding in life. On my first viewing, I was very moved by its final sequence—in the first cut, an overpowering five minutes, and now, a mewing two. Once awkwardly corset-clad, Pocahontas loses a sensation of youthful freedom she finally recaptures in motherhood, playing hide-and-seek with her son. This scene suggests feelings rich and contradictory, Proustian nostalgia inflected by encroaching death. But its insistence that Pocahontas is content with what she’s left behind, and its reliance on the non-specificity of everywhere-and-somewhere transcendence—spanning lakes, forests and the bleak symmetry of Society estates—mark it as lazily reassuring, a dime-store haiku, and a master’s nadir.