Terrence Malick's American Genesis: 'The New World'

Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas in The New World (2005) (IMDB)

Terrence Malick's esoteric take on the Pocahontas legend, New World, is a feat of cinematic philosophy.

The New World
Terrence Malick


2 July 2016


There's an equivocation at play in the title of The New World, Terrence Malick's fourth film. At first pass, it's an obvious reference to the concept of "the new world" in Great Britain's colonial expansion, which culminated in the founding of what would later become the United States of America. Malick's film touches on many of the major places and people involved: John Smith and Pocahontas are main characters (played by Colin Farrell and Q'orianka Kilcher, respectively), and colonial Jameston is given an authentic top-to-bottom creation by the film's production team. Since Malick is in the director's chair for The New World, one would be correct in predicting that this take on the Pocahontas legend is anything but the storybook version, but many of the legend's conventional features do appear in the film.

However, as is the case with many other topics that Malick has explored through film -- war ( The Thin Red Line), fame (Knight of Cups), and family (The Tree of Life) -- what ranks above all else is the philosophical subtext of those topics. It's not inaccurate to call The Thin Red Line a war film, but in that movie Malick's aim is not to pull apart the complex politics of World War II, but instead to answer the eternal questions that form the bedrock for war across all of human history. The Thin Red Line asks not why the state of global politics led to World War II. It asks questions like: "This great evil, where's it come from?" "Why does nature vie with itself?" "Does our ruin benefit the earth?" The queries Malick makes the foundations of his cinema are the makings of many a graduate philosophy seminar, but as he sees it, film is uniquely able to wrestle with the great dilemmas of human existence.

This philosophical inquisitiveness is part and parcel of The New World. The equivocation in the title of the film is that it's not, at its base, about the colonization of the North American continent by the English in the 17th century. Malick's camera is pointed at a more fundamental question: "How are new worlds formed?" One can envision The New World as a zoomed-in version of the creation sequence in Malick's The Tree of Life: whereas the latter traces the whole cosmos as it unfolds, the former is a document of a world within a world coming to being.

This approach to the Pocahontas story is where Malick also comes closest to erring where so many storytellers have erred before: whitewashing British colonization. Too often, stories about John Smith and his ilk peddle falsehoods about white saviors and uncivilized "savages". Malick gives us glimpses into the horror that would later escalate into genocide of Native American tribes: bloody fights break out, crop fields are burned, people remain perpetually lost in translation. The first shot of a British colonizer walking onto American land starts off with a sickle poking into the frame before the audience can even see the soldier carrying it. The weapon precedes the person.

Film Strip by joseph_alban (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Yet Malick's focus is not on the goodness or badness of the colonists and the natives (though his preference is clearly for the latter), but rather the complexities inherent to two worlds being brought together. If The New World is guilty of passing over the evils of colonialism, it's not because it takes any favorable view of the colonists. It's because Malick uses the primordial years of the United States as a means of framing larger questions about ontology and ethics. Pocahontas and Smith at times become ciphers for these questions, and as a consequence the political context of their relationship evaporates as Malick's camera moves more into the clouds.

The New World is not really "Malick's take on the founding of America"; his interests in Jamestown and Pocahontas are the same ones that undergird The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life. The 17th century colonial setting undoubtedly informs this film in a distinctive way, but broken down to its most elemental, The New World is a cinematic exploration of the problems that vex Malick the most. This is not to say that the movie is not unique; one can effectively argue, as many have, that the film is Malick's best, if not one of the truest feats of cinema. "It's been said that The New World doesn't have fans: it has disciples and partisans and fanatics," John Patterson wrote in The Guardian before admitting: "I'm one of them… with The New World cinema has reached its culmination, its apotheosis."

Perhaps the biggest proponent of The New World is San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle, who dubbed the movie the best of the '00s. He writes:

I have seen [ The New World] at least five times and have no idea how Malick knew, when he put it all together, that the movie would even make sense. It's difficult to write a great short poem. It's difficult to write a great long novel. But to write a great long poem that's the size of a great long novel -- one that makes sense, doesn't flag and is exponentially better than the short poem or the long novel ever would have been -- that's almost impossible. Malick did it. With images.

"Poetry" is an apt word to invoke in describing Malick's filmography, and especially The New World. Rife with jump-cuts and fragmented sequences yet never without a stunning shot in the frame, The New World doesn't take a conventional Hollywood approach to its story, which has itself been subjected to myriad Hollywood approaches.

But given what follows The New World, the movie does feel like one of Malick's last brushes with narrative cinema. The Tree of Life is anchored by the story of a family, but Malick is not content to let the camera stay within the confines of small-town Texas. He shows the viewer glimpses of the beginning of time, the rise of the dinosaurs, and what looks a lot like the afterlife. Malick's two most recent features, the total misfire To the Wonder and the perplexing but brilliant Knight of Cups, eschew narrative to an even greater degree; in the latter of these, the word "plot" is not even useful.

The New World may not utilize conventional storytelling, but compared to those two films it might as well be a Howard Hawks picture. Beginning with the arrival of the Jamestown colonists to the eponymous "new world" and ending with Pocahontas' death in England, the film's path follows a clear and distinct narrative line, even as Malick's camera bounces about within individual scenes.

Malick and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki are in prime form, transforming this oft-told tale into a rhapsody of stunning images. Malick and Lubezki reportedly adopted several principles in shooting The New World, such as requiring all shots to be in deep focus and all light to be sourced naturally. (Here Lubezki laid the groundwork for his highly lauded photography in Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant.) In watching The New World, one can conclude that there was only one guiding rule at play in the making of the film: no wasted shots. There's never a moment when the camera merely establishes a location or simply cuts to a new scene. Not one of Malick's films can be accused of uninspired cinemaphotography, but The New World benefited from the "every shot must stand alone" maxim.

In a characteristically brilliant essay by Tom Gunning included in the deluxe Criterion Collection edition of the film, he writes, "Malick crafts a series of shots whose temporal and spatial relation remains looser, an inquisitive vision. Curiosity, more than drama, drives The New World." The curiosity Gunning identifies helps explain why Malick's camera habitually gravitates towards the most beautiful images within a scene. Curiosity drives the camera, which allows it to capture the best angles in a scene.

Of course, even Malick's detractors will be unsurprised at any positive description of the cinematography in his films. Love or hate Malick, it's impossible to deny he can string together pretty images. One of the biggest sources of contention in Malick's filmography, especially after The Thin Red Line, is the acting in his films. To some, "acting" is hardly an appropriate word to use for what Farrell does in The New World or Christian Bale does in Knight of Cups. Both men seem to drift about their scenes and brood rather than act.

In The New World, Farrell (as John Smith) and Bale (as John Rolfe) do their fair amount of drifting and brooding, delivering their spiritual quandries to the viewer through the Patented Malick Voiceover. But this loose approach to performance suits The New World, since the movie's approach to the clash between the British and the Native Americans is predicated on a sense of exploration and drifting. In contrast to the simplified history book version of the Pocahontas story, The New World shows the two cultures figuring each other out well before the first battles take place.

Smith, who at the beginning of the film escapes the hangman's noose after being labeled a mutineer, does not come to Jamestown ready to stand his ground against the natives. He comes to America lost, which makes him a fitting match for Pocahontas, a woman loyal to her tribe who still decides to explore a new world being built right in front of her, a world unlike any she or anyone else had seen before.

As Pocahontas, Q'orianka Kilcher is stunning, the movie's centerpiece and star. Kilcher was only 14 at the time of filming, which makes her performance all the more commendable. Never once is she forced to capitulate to the lamentable stereotypes that plague the Pocahontas myth: she's not a lovestruck teenager won over to Smith immediately, nor is she trivialized as an infantile "natural" (as she and her tribe are called in the film) in need of an education from the colonizers.

In The New World Pocahontas' education is one of her own making. She sees the world for what it is, as her regular voiceovers evince ("Mother, I now know where you live," she says to the earth as she dies), but she also doesn't know what to do when the colonial arm of England finally reaches in to her native territory.

There's a lot to unspool in The New World, and Criterion has made that task even more intense with its extensive three-disc Blu-ray treatment of the movie. (The DVD version is four discs.) Each disc contains one of the movie's three cuts: the 172-minute extended cut (rendered immaculate in a new 4K transfer), the 150-minute first cut, and the 135-minute theatrical cut. The first two of these cuts get their length from added wildlife and scenery shots, which some might dismiss as nature porn. There are stretches of the extended cut that drag on a bit, but Malick never shoots just to get a nice shot: it all fits into the vision of The New World.

An hour and a half-long documentary about the making of the movie helps elucidate some of the thought processes behind the film, and is particularly useful in explaining how the cast and crew incorporated Native American tribes in ensuring the authenticity of the movie. A lengthy interview with Farrell and Kilcher shot in 2016 also gives insight into the methods of Malick, who, ever the recluse, is absent from much of the behind-the-scenes footage.

On its own, The New World is an exhausting thing. Criterion's packaging of the film stands to make it even more of an undertaking for those who really want to inhabit Malick's vision of the 17th century, which is rooted more in Platonic forms than history textbooks. Yet if there's something worth exhausting oneself for, it's beauty, and this definitive edition of The New World is all that and much more. The philosophical questions that make up this and all the rest of Malick's films may never be answered, but with Malick at least we can be lost in beauty in the meantime.







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