I did not rush out to see this movie on the largest possible screens when it was released nearly six years ago, and more the fool I for that. It’s kind of incredible.
In their list of the top fifty films of the past decade, the Onion’s A.V. Club, one of my favorite daily web destinations, rated Terrence Malick’s The New World at number nine. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography. (Malick’s movies are always visual fireworks.) Roger Ebert gave it four stars and called Malick “a visionary.” Despite all this, The New World isn’t as well remembered as it could be.
Why is that? I’m not the guy to ask. I mean, I have some answers, but they won’t sound good to everybody. I guess I’d reluctantly agree that Terrence Malick’s movies aren’t for everyone. I’d argue that you really have to love movies to love his movies. Most people apparently don’t love movies that much. Your friend with the Scarface poster probably doesn’t love movies as much as he thinks he does. Scarface is cool and all, but the well-rounded person doesn’t watch only one movie over and over again. Really loving movies means being open to movies that aren’t the most obvious or accessible.
To appreciate what Malick does, you also have to be open to qualities which are too rare to modern movies, such as thoughtfulness and meditation, appreciation of the natural world, even spirituality. (And not the obvious or accessible kind of spirituality, either.) Though Malick (The Thin Red Line) has already directed a better World War II movie than Michael Bay(Pearl Harbor) has, guess whose movies are more popular? I don’t like to be elitist, but we really are talking about sophistication here. You don’t like it? Cool. I don’t either. Prove me wrong. Pay to watch these wonderful movies.
And The New World, in my opinion, is pretty wonderful. It’s where cinematic art and American history meet. It’s the story of Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), the Native American girl whose life was altered by the arrival of the Jamestown expedition, which introduced her to Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), her first love. That relationship is battered by the collision of the Native people and the English settlers, and it ultimately doesn’t survive the trip, though consolation arrives in the form of John Rolfe (Christian Bale), a good man who became the father of her son.
A lot of us have heard this story before, in one form or another. Hell, it was a Disney cartoon. It’s popular history, but not that currently popular. Malick’s method is to bring the past lumbering back to life, like a dinosaur rediscovering its bite. The first time you see those colonial ships, matched with the unusually good score by James Horner (normally cornier), there’s a vivid majesty to the movie that makes it more interesting than Social Studies ever was back in grade school.
In The New World, Malick is specifically addressing the very moment of conception of the United States, beginning, as he posits, with Pocahontas, portrayed here as the first true American, a knowing and canny survivor. This movie makes you love America all over again, the way you love Pocahontas as she’s conjured here, luminous, sweet, and full of promise. (She’s a teenager so it’s a very innocent kind of love.) Colin Farrell is really good at playing the mutinous rogue, a basically violent man, but he’s very tender in his scenes with her. It doesn’t feel wrong. Even more is the case with Christian Bale, dropping his usual intensity and playing a genuinely decent man for once. Internet creeps who talk trash about these two stars probably haven’t seen how good they are in this movie. Oh, and Christopher Plummer is in it too, as the leader of the expedition, Captain Newport, typically dignified and magnetic and a little bit sinister. I don’t think we have to debate his greatness at this point in time.
I’m not sure yet how deep into history The New World actually goes (John Smith and John Rolfe were real people, but was Captain Newport? and does it matter?), but to me it’s thoroughly convincing no matter how much of it is actually true. Does that make sense? There’s a truly epic sweep to this movie — normally when I describe a movie as “epic”, I’m talking about scope or distance, but in this case the epicness actually feels like it spans a gap of centuries. Malick, as ever, is able to evoke all the most ancient platitudes of storytelling and moviemaking, and to make them true through his poetic vision.
Yeah, I’d say it’s worth watching.