All Things Shining, Pt 4
Terrence Malick's fourth film, The New World, received mixed reviews on its first release, but quickly spawned a vocal and vibrant online cult of admirers, and its reputation has deepened over time. It's my personal favorite of the director's films because of the way it gathers together aspects of Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line and merges them into an epic romance with elements of historical re-creation and critique.
You could describe it as a love story about the doomed affair of the Powhatan princess Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) and the English explorer John Smith (Colin Farrell), but it's much more than that.
Malick eventually builds the film out into a kind of love triangle (with Pocahontas eventually taking up with another Englishman, Christian Bale's John Rolfe, and moving to England with him), but it's not as pointed as the triangular relationship in Days of Heaven because Smith and Rolfe never meet. The romantic tension exists entirely in the mind of Pocahontas, who is torn between the reality of Rolfe and the memory of Smith; her torn affections obliquely mirror larger conflicts in The New World, between the Powhatans and the English, and the old, unified cultures of each continent vs. the polyglot reality that both cultures will eventually have to contend with.
Even more so than The Thin Red Line, The New World expresses the director's belief in the unity and interconnectedness of all things. Like TTRL, this movie boasts multiple voice-overs that stake out personal, subjective realities while reminding us that, in the end, there is really only one human story, and that each individual life reflects every other life as well as the whole of history. This movie also works Malick's Naturalist tendency into the drama more gently and eloquently than his earlier work. Treating Pocahontas as a nexus point for the film's story, setting and themes, The New World crosscuts continuously between locations and people, past and present, reality and metaphor, and links all the disparate material with characteristically lovely insert shots of plants, animals, water and trees. The net result is a profoundly warm, embracing film that celebrates life itself in all its wonder and terror—a portrait of a few distinct lives on a planet, and in a universe, that has no beginning and no end.
RELATED CALENDAR ENTRYMay 13–15, 2011 Terrence Malick
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Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.More articles by Matt Zoller Seitz
Author's Website: The House Next Door