Director Terrence Malick moves at a very distinct and deliberate speed–namely, his own. He’s not in a hurry. He wrote the screenplay for his latest movie New World about 25 years ago. It is just now going to be released nationwide.
Despite his widely heralded acclaim as a writer/director, he has only done a handful of major projects since 1973 (Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven, and Badlands). His style is very distinct, unconventional, and recognizable (some would say “slow and plodding,” while others would view it as “poetic and mystical”).
In his new film, Malick focuses his attention on the exotic story of Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), John Smith (Colin Farrell), and John Rolphe (Christian Bale)–a tale drenched with love, betrayal, sacrifice, deception, abandonment, and discovery. It attempts to chronicle the culture clash of European newcomers and “the naturals” during the founding of the Jamestown Settlement in 1607.
New World also tells the compelling story (through both fact and myth) of the cultural transformation of a young woman who has to give up her native food, faith, and fashion in order to fit into the colonial culture because of a courageous act of self-sacrifice.
“I think of Pocahontas as a visionary, a peacemaker ahead of her time,” 15-year-old Q’orianka Kilcher told me. “And living proof of how far the willingness of a dreamer of new worlds can go. I really admire her.” It comes through. For such a young actress, Kilcher communicates a tremendous respect and joy in portraying this legendary character.
The romance between the swashbuckling John Smith and the naïve Pocahontas is told through vignettes of love and discovery without verbalization. Be forewarned, a lot of the film is almost like a ballet–so much is intended to be communicated without using words. This will prove to be frustrating for some and liberating for others.
Viewers may sense the film portrays all the British as bad and all the Native Americans as virtuous. There are several instances where John Smith voiceovers carry a dreamy adoration of the native culture. When I asked producer Sara Green about the flowery language, she responded: “Most of our references were written accounts from that time from colonists, whether they were journal entries or letters from home or whatever. And several of those exact words were in those accounts, whether it was Smith or several of the other colonists. It reflects the naïve way that they saw the Native community at first.”
She went on to point out, “It’s only in the beginning when Smith is enamored of this world. We’re in his mind, experiencing what he’s experiencing that this is complete bliss. And as you can see, we show very quickly that that’s a much more sophisticated culture and that he was in fact naïve to think there was no jealousy… So those words are from the time. But I think the way Terry uses those words shows there’s more to it than that.”
The film puts a heavy emphasis on having the viewer discover elements of life as if it were a maiden voyage. For example, at their first encounter in the tall glass near the riverbank, nearly naked Native Americans sniff and poke at the sweaty, hairy, armor-clad explorers. The Powhatan tribesmen sport extravagant face-paint and mohawks that, unfortunately, will most likely lead many viewers to think of some of the rowdy Oakland Raiders fans in the endzone. The naturals knock on the body armor of the European colonists as if they were knocking of the front door of their next door neighbors. It is almost comical as they sniff the stinky white-faced sailors who have been trapped on a small ship for months without a bath.
This is Malick’s vision and, perhaps, the meaning of the title. It is a new world for everyone involved–new plants, creatures, foods, and smells. He is masterful at helping you explore a forest as if it is the first time you have walked through a shadowy section of trees or tromped through the swaying, thigh-high weeds near the river bank.
As the film unfolds, we discover this new world through the eyes of John Smith as he explores the countryside with wide-eyed wonder. He lives with the Powhatans and learns their culture and way of life. In the second half of the movie, we see the world of colonial Jamestown (and later London) through the eyes of Pocahontas as she embraces British culture and colonial life.
“The clothes helped changed the way I was acting as Pocahontas,” Kilcher told me when I asked about her character’s cultural transformation. “In my traditional tribal clothes, I was able to run freely in the woods and do cartwheels and things like that. The first time I tried on my English wardrobe, I had them tie my corset extra tight and give me shoes a size too small in order to feel how constrained I imagine Pocahontas must have felt. I went home that night and cried because I felt like a caged bird, like the freedom was torn away.”
Starring in her first feature film, Kilcher is the bright light in this film. While Farrell and Bale have the big-screen notoriety, she carries the freight as Pocahontas. If you are looking for a documentary on colonial life, watch the History Channel. If you are intrigued by a poetic love and loss story with all the elements of out-of-the-ordinary filmmaking, make sure to catch Terrence Malick’s New World.
– Steve Beard is the creator of Thunderstruck.org–a website devoted to faith and pop culture.