Back to the Garden

The suffocating beauty of Terrence Malicks earthy New World

I thought it was a dream, what we knew in the forest. It's the only truth.

—dialogue from The New World

The stars of the new Terrence Malick picture, The New World—regular members of his stock company all—are tall grass blowing in the wind, sunlight reflected off still waters and crickets chirping at dusk. And no, those aren't the names of the Powhatan Indians who populate this story of the 17th-century explorer John Smith, the woman called Pocahontas and America itself in its infancy. Malick is an anomaly—the Hollywood director who finds greater stimulation in nature than inside a CG paint box, who prefers green to green screens. And like every movie he has made over the last 32 years (all three of them), this one exudes a rapturous, sensual beauty. Discussing The New World after the screening, a friend proposed that Malick's imagery makes you want to run up and touch the screen. But no, that's not quite right; it's more like the images are touching you.

It would seem easy to dismiss Malick (as many have) as the maker of pretty pictures, but the beauty in Malick's work is more than skin deep. It's as though we're being transported to a place before time began, or at least before we were first cast out of that proverbial garden. Which is precisely the point. No matter their official subjects, Malick's first three movies (Badlands, Days of Heavenand The Thin Red Line) were all mournful paeans to paradises lost, innocences violated and savageries tamed. The New Worldis no exception, only this time the Eden in question is literally America, and the locust in her wheat field is none other than the imperialist invader. Had Malick made this film in the 1970s, when he originally wrote it, it doubtless would have been seen as some kind of response to a certain misbegotten American military action in the East. Three decades on, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

So I wish The New Worldwere better. Certainly, it is not without its glories: The early scenes, in which Smith (Colin Farrell) and the three ships commissioned by the London Virginia Company arrive on the shores of the James River to the stirrings of Wagner on the soundtrack, have a primitivistic intensity; we feel as though we, like Smith (and Malick for that matter), are seeing this land for the first time, each blade of grass distinct from the next, each patch of sky a unique shade of blue. Then "the naturals" appear in their shimmering brown skins, as exotic to the British as the British are to them. It's intoxicating stuff, not least because, with the exception of a few passages of voice-over narration, hardly a line of dialogue is spoken. The British and the Indians can't speak, of course—at least not to each other—but it's something more than that. Malick seems to have grown fatigued of words, to believe that the deepest feelings in cinema might be expressed some other way. Yet where the best films of Malick and of those directors driven by similar ambitions—Claire Denis, Abbas Kiarostami and Carroll Ballard to name just three—strike a delicate balance between the poetic and the prosaic, The New Worldis a movie less interested in expanding the boundaries of narrative cinema than in forsaking them.

Though I've admired Malick's previous films, I've never fully bought into the argument—having as much to do with the years in which he wasn't making movies as those when he was—that he's some kind of genius. If nothing else, The New Worldoffers compelling evidence that Malick himself may have succumbed to the hype. The movie is less a historical drama punctuated by ecstatic landscapes than a stunning landscape film that pauses every once in a while to tell a story. And whenever it does, it's as if a giant vacuum comes along and sucks all the life out of the picture. Of course, there were indications as far back as Days of Heaventhat he might be a better director of insects than of actors, but The New Worldis the first of Malick's movies in which the dialogue scenes are completely inert; it's as if he can't be bothered. The scenes feel like concessions to the studio, for what Malick really seems to want to do is to make an abstract study of figures and environments, like the films of the experimental filmmakers James Benning and Peter Hutton. If he could, he'd just as soon do without things like characters and plot, and The New World would probably be a more successful movie for it.

A lot happens in The New World: Smith and a party of his men set out to meet with the feared Powhatan chief (August Schellenberg) and are ambushed en route; those who stay behind to build the colony that will become Jamestown are ravaged by starvation and disease; eventually, more settlers arrive and civilization rears its ugly head. But the only thing Malick shows much interest in is the blossoming relationship between Smith and the daughter of the Powhatan chief, Pocahontas (14-year-old Q'orianka Kilcher), who saves Smith from imminent execution and spends most of the movie's next hour frolicking with him in the forest and teaching him to paint with all the colors of the wind. The rest of the characters scarcely possess names, let alone personalities, and the movie feels like a particularly cruel betrayal of the actors who have dutifully followed Malick up the river and into the jungle—some of whom (like Ben Chaplin, Noah Taylor and Brian F. O'Byrne) have been reduced to blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameos à la Adrien Brody in The Thin Red Line, while others (like Christian Bale, who makes a third-act entrance as Pocahontas' husband-to-be, John Rolfe) seem utterly bewildered about their purpose in being there.

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