Director Terrence Malick’s return to the multiplex in 1998 with The Thin Red Line was one of the more remarkable comebacks in the 100-year history of the movie industry. Malick, a Texas native who made two of the most celebrated and influential American dramas of the 1970s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, promptly vanished for a good 20 years before returning with, of all things, a meditation on nature and humanity on the front lines of the Second World War. That his comeback film saw only modest box-office returns but earned seven Oscar nominations is an indicator of the esteem in which Malick is held by his peers.
If he’s the least prolific of major directors (even Stanley Kubrick used to crank out movies on a more rigorous schedule), he attends lavishly to each project. The seven-year interval between The Thin Red Line and his newest film apparently wasn’t quite long enough — Malick was still working on The New World after it opened in limited release late last year, and the cut that plays in the suburbs may well be a good 20 minutes shorter than the version that was pushed into theaters to qualify for Academy Awards consideration. (Word is you can expect a third version of the film, the longest of the bunch, on DVD later in 2006.)
In this case, shorter may well be better. The New World is a long, quiet film that never quite rewards the attention you pay it. It chronicles the relationship between Native Americans and English settlers in the 17th century, with a focus on the Jamestown colony and the romance that, American mythology has it, sprang up between Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and a beautiful native princess, best known as Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher), who apparently saves his life.
The first hour or so is the best, depicting the intrusion of scruffy Europeans on the elegant, unspoiled beauty of the North American continent. Malick’s depiction of the local Native American tribe as a simple people with a sophisticated relationship with their land — and a complicated balance of power with their new neighbors — is as sympathetic and successful as any the movies have attempted. (The closest comparison is probably Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, from back in 1992.) But the interesting dynamic between settlers and natives is swallowed up by the poetry of a love story that has Farrell and Kilcher moping around grassy fields, expressions of yearning and wonder writ large on their faces and voiced inside their heads.
Farrell’s Smith is an appealingly contemporary man’s man — outwardly gruff but with poetry in his soul — trying to reconcile his duty to the settlers with his feelings for his new love. And the 15-year-old Kilcher is a real find, an unconventional beauty with a rare, naturalistic ease before the camera. But once Farrell leaves the picture, sent on a fool’s errand to find a passage to the West Indies via Newfoundland, the film suffers from the loss of its most charismatic presence. Meanwhile, the mood shifts from gritty birth-of-a-nation material to historical romance, seemingly treading close to Hallmark-card sentiment.
Of course, a director of Malick’s tastes and temperament isn’t exactly serving up cinematic comfort food. There’s a deep ambivalence behind much of what we see here, with Pocahontas’ marriage to a kind tobacco farmer (a fine Christian Bale, in a quiet, confident performance) and journey to Europe playing as a mirror-image of the Europeans’ arrival in Virginia. Smith’s arrival on unspoiled North American soil in the first reel of the film is deliberately echoed later by the arrival of Opechancanough, played by Wes Studi, in London, where nature has been wrestled to the ground. In one shot where the camera tracks behind him and looks over his shoulders at the spectacle of an impossibly ornate tended garden, you have to wonder what’s going through his head.
And then there’s the depiction of the assimilation of Pocahontas by European culture. Actually, I don’t remember anyone in this film ever referring to her by that name. When the newcomers eventually christen her Rebecca, it’s a decision that makes good sense to them but reads as a metaphor for how the interests of the settlers in the New World ran roughshod over those of the natives. And so even though “Rebecca,” who eventually marries a tobacco farmer, is seen here to have led a happy life, the specter of genocide casts a shadow over the romantic vision. Malick sets up a complicated mixture of feelings in the viewer that’s interesting intellectually, but the love story isn’t particularly compelling on its own terms. A final meeting between Smith and Pocahontas, for instance, lands on-screen with a thud. It feels as contrived as the film’s opening reels feel lush and organic.
Despite its flaws, movie buffs will want to see this in a theater, because the spell it casts, however intermittent, will dissipate on a smaller screen. The imagery, realized by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, is undeniably beautiful, and when Malick’s signature combination of dramatic visuals, assured performances, and poetic voiceover really meshes, it’s a sublime, transporting experience. Even if it eventually fizzles out rather than packing a punch, few contemporary directors are as skilled as Malick — and nobody in Hollywood is making movies like this anymore.
This review was originally published in The White Plains Times.