Judge Brendan Babish implores those who were scared off by The Thin Red Line to give Terrence Malick another chance.
Our reviews of The New World (2007) (published August 6th, 2009), The New World (2005) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published July 20th, 2016), and The New World (2005): The Extended Cut (published October 14th, 2008) are also available.
Once discovered, it was changed forever.
Following hot on the heels of The Thin Red Line, legendary director Terrence Malick returns a scant six years later (following his previous 25-year break between movies) with the historical epic The New World.
Facts of the Case
The New World is a retelling of the legend of the Native American princess, Pocahontus (last depicted on the big screen in Disney's underwhelming Pocahontus). At the beginning of the 17th century, a trio of English sailing vessels drop anchor along the scenic Virginia seaside. Tensions are quickly inflamed between the "the Naturals" and the colonialists. Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell, Alexander) is sent on a reconnaissance mission to scope out the enemies fortifications. He is quickly captured by natives and summarily sentenced to be executed by the chief. At the last moment, the chief's daughter, Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher), throws herself upon Smith and begs her father to spare his life. After some brief deliberations, Smith is released from bondage and allowed to tutor the princess in English custom. As one would expect, love quickly ensues.
Unfortunately, hostilities between the colonialists and the natives break out. After Pocahontas warns Smith of an imminent attack, her father banishes her from the village. She takes refuge with the colonialists, but is unable to be reunited with Smith, who is sent on a voyage to explore Canada's great white north. Soon afterward new settler John Rolfe (Christian Bale, American Psycho) arrives on the colony. Rolfe quickly becomes smitten with the exotic Pocahontas and seeks to make her his wife. Pocahontas must decide whether to hold out for the smoldering John Smith or simply settle for the available John Rolfe.
I suppose many people are going to avoid The New World simply because it is a Terrence Malick film. Of course, many are going to watch it because it is a Malick film, but I am not addressing those people. You see, The Thin Red Line, though admired by many, probably inspired more feelings of vitriol in its viewers than any other Oscar-nominated film since The Godfather, Part III. I know many of those who were frustrated by the The Thin Red Line's deliberate pacing, ponderous voiceovers will bypass The New World as if it were a bowl of moldy croutons in a salad bar. This would be a shame, because The New World is the best film I have seen from 2005.
Like many, I was initially underwhelmed by The Thin Red Line. Coming off of the fast-paced, action-oriented Saving Private Ryan, I was not expecting a languorous meditation on the banality of warfare. The overwrought dialogue had me squirm in my seat and the long tracking shots of the jungle made my eyelids heavy. It wasn't until many years after the film's release that I watched it again. It was broadcast on a basic cable channel, and I figured I would watch until the first commercial break, then change over to something more stimulating, like Larry King Live. However, when approaching The Thin Red Line with an understanding of its fractured storyline and an expectation of ennui, I found myself surprisingly entranced by the suddenly beautiful and moving film.
Many of the same attributes that made The Thin Red Line maddening for many are present here. Malick is obviously a nature lover, and he employs long, beautiful tracking shows of the untamed American coastline. These shots may seem more appropriate for a National Geographic special than a major motion picture, yet their beauty effectively presents a setting and time period that many viewers will be wholly unfamiliar with. Additionally, the disconnect between the natives and colonialists seems to arise out of differing appreciations for nature. It only seems appropriate that in a film documenting their differences that the landscape would be featured prominently.
Malick also uses voiceovers as a vehicle to allow his characters to emote their innermost thoughts that would be rendered awkward if spoken aloud. While I generally dislike voiceovers, Malick has a talent for injecting freeform poetry into the thoughts of his characters without sounding hokey. In tandem with the beautiful vision on the screen, this makes for powerful viewing. Scenes of the courtship between Smith and Pocahontas, largely consisting of Farrell and Kilcher writhing together amongst majestic scenery, are so full of raw emotion they are almost painful to watch.
Much of the credit for the film's success must go to newcomer Kilcher. As a love story, one's engagement lies almost entirely on the strength of the leads. While Collin Farrell is a capable actor, I have never understood the wild ascendancy of his celebrity. In The New World, he certainly doesn't detract from the movie, but he brings little to the table, either. His main contribution is allowing Kilcher to enrapture us with her playful innocence. Kilcher blithely skipping through a neck-high field of weeds so perfectly evokes the careless love of youth that it's difficult to keep the lumps from forming in your throat. Perhaps most impressively, she was only 14 years old while filming, yet displays as much or more confidence on screen than her more accomplished male co-stars.
The New World may seem a simple melancholic love story set against a colonial backdrop, yet its story encompasses so much more in a little over two hours. While John Smith and Pocahontas experience the vagaries of love, and all its accompanying exuberance, the romance between Rolfe and Pocahontas unflinchingly represents the compromises and sacrifices one often makes for the sake of stability. Theirs is a romance that is far more common in life, and yet grossly under-represented in American cinema. In this sense, The New World is not only a fierce epic depicting the clash of civilizations, or a piercing love story, but also a sober meditation on companionship. It follows these three differing storylines with equal beauty, skill and poetry. For any lovers of the cinema, this is a film that should not be missed.
The DVD of The New World is a mixed bag. The lush scenery would be a perfect showcase for big-screen televisions, but the bright, vibrant colors are softened and there is a slight amount of colors bleeding together. Thankfully, the soundtrack, whether blaring classical music or softly allowing crickets to chirp, is a great amalgamation of bombast and natural sounds. The crowning special feature is an exhausting making-of documentary that seems to include interviews with every cast member with the exception of Terence Malick. While I know Malick is a bit reclusive, his absence here renders an otherwise fine feature nearly irrelevant.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It should be noted that shortly after its release, Terence Malick discussed a director's cut of The New World on DVD that would run well over three hours. While I am keenly interested in viewing this, I am happy that the theatrical version of the film has been preserved as well. Certainly, adding an extra hour of footage to any movie could easily bog it down with unnecessary digressions and excess plot. Still, one should be aware that there is a fair-to-good chance that there is going to be a lot of double-dipping with the eventual release of the director's cut. My only fear is that the movie's dismal box office will prevent this cut from ever making it to the marketplace.
Virtually all fans of Malick's work are going to be more than happy with his latest effort. Personally, I think this is his best film. However, I can not guarantee that all Thin Red Line detractors will enjoy this movie, and I implore them to give Malick a second chance. In addition to the film's obvious merits, The New World is a movie that many of the decision-makers in the entertainment industry would consider too cerebral for a mass audience. If the film cannot find a larger audience on DVD, they will have been proven right.
Not guilty. See this movie.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Teaser Trailer
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