I have this friend (I know that is a shocking development for you) and for the sake of privacy, we can call them “Guy”. Guy insists on recommending films for me to review as if I needed the guidance of lesser beings to instruct my cinematic viewing schedule. But Guy is persistent and eventually crawls his way under my skin and I am forced to use the twin guns of tact and finesse to destroy my worthless adversary with a fair compromise: if he follows my “Star Wars: The Clone Wars Episode Guide”, I will allow him to choose one film for me to review. Naturally, he fell for my clever ruse and submitted to my terms and conditions, and after he completed The Clone Wars, all that was left was for him to choose his one film.
Guy had long been ranting about how the extended cut of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” was vastly superior to the fecal extract we were given in the theatrical release, and I was thoroughly convinced that he would assign me the task of watching the 4 and a half hour nightmare, so much so that I had already put in an order to Walmart for a pack of 5-Hour Energy Extra Strength shots. And yet, the world continues to make fools of us all, for even though Vegas had “BVS” as the clear frontrunner, Guy defied logical convention and submitted “The New World”, a 2005 historical romantic drama from director Terrence Malick, as his choice. According to Guy, “The New World” was such a surreal cinematic experience and he was so curious how I would interpret the film that he was willing to forfeit his only chance to force me to watch the extended cut of “BVS” to do so. It is such a bold gesture on Guy’s end that earned my respect.
And just as quickly as Guy had earned my respect is equally as quickly as he lost it. “The New World” was not the experience I was promised. For reference, I watched the entirety of the film with both of my parents, and immediately after the credits rolled, they both declared in unison that “Guy is no longer allowed to suggest films in this house ever again”. Now, I will be clear, my parents are not always the keenest viewers of cinema and their opinions aren’t gospel, but I thought that was a funny true story to include here.
“The New World” is the story of early British settlers at Jamestown Virginia, specifically Captain John Smith (Collin Farrell) and his capture by the natives and his subsequent love story with the chief’s daughter, Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher). There are supporting roles played by Christopher Plummer and Christian Bale as well, but the main storyline is simply about Smith and Pocahontas. This story has been made most famous by Disney as one of their notoriously culturally insensitive animated portrayals, and in that comparative sense, “The New World” is tremendously more loyal to factually-based storytelling than its cartoon counterpart. Malick’s main goal with his film is clearly to express the unfiltered wonder of exploring a new world and culture, and in a way, he does succeed.
To be fair to Guy, his opinions are not completely unfounded in some sort of reality. I will give him his due and admit that I understand where he was coming from. The first act of the film, which is undoubtedly the strongest, does exude many qualities akin to the surreal, dream-like description he promised me. Cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki is inarguably one of the most talented people to ever pick up a camera and he proves just how influential the right photographic techniques can be in the storytelling process. When Smith is with the tribe of natives, dubbed “the naturals”, the film is at its most captivating mainly due to the beauty of how it was filmed. Smith himself wonders if his experiences were a dream because they contrast so heavily with the life he knew at Jamestown with his fellow settlers. Without Chivo’s cinematography, as well as James Horner’s understated musical score, I doubt the feelings would have effectively been consigned.
But it is after Smith returns to Jamestown that the film falters as without the technical aspects creating an extrasensory experience, the flaws of the film become extremely apparent. As the visual and audio aspects begin to take a backseat to the characters, you begin to see just how extremely minimalist the script is and just how much it relies on its technical achievements to tell its story. The plot begins to drag shortly after a quick violent scrimmage the follows Smith’s return, so much so that the film requires unnecessary amounts of effort to follow the motivations and what little subsequent actions that follow are.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film is that despite its very talented cast, no one delivers a noteworthy performance. Christopher Plummer is the only actor in the entirety of the film that does not whisper every one of their lines. The minimal audible volume of all the characters is a severe problem of the film. Not only does no one emote even in the slightest, but it is a physical struggle to hear what little dialogue there is. Subtitles are absolutely required or much of the film becomes incomprehensible. This is not even a matter of turning up the volume on your television as much as the fact that the characters mumble all of their lines under their breaths with the most stoic expressions on their faces. Again, without the technical achievements, I believe the story would be impossible to follow.
I feel like I should reiterate the fact that I believe I understand the goals of Malick when he made this film. He created a piece of cinema that is very beautiful to look at. I believe he wished to simply document the story, which ultimately results in a neutral tone. I cannot help but feel that the film doesn’t have anything to say about any of the content it is showing other than the beauty and stark comparisons of culture. After the film concludes, the only lingering questions I found myself having been just those that wondered if there was a message at all.
The fascinating aspects of this story are not given enough attention to truly be thought-provoking. Was Smith a traitor to his people? Is it appropriate to fall in love with a 14-year-old girl in any time period? Was Pocahontas kidnapped and forced to conform to Christianity or did she simply seek refuge at Jamestown? Were the settlers truly hostile or were the naturals justified in the defense of their land? Was Pocahontas justified to re-marry John Rolfe (Christian Bale) after she believes Smith died even though she did not love him? Was Smith selfish for leaving Pocahontas to pursue his career? Why are any of these characters worth following? Unfortunately, none of these questions are adequately explored. The minimalist approach is tremendous for exploring the beauty of the settings but there is not enough substance in this film.
It is not fair to say that this film is a failure. I highly doubt most filmmakers could craft such a beautiful film with a cast like this one. Malick was very respectful to Native American cultures, and to the best of my knowledge, I believe he did a tremendous job with his research to create a genuine retelling of the story. There are plenty of challenges that he did rise to meet and that should be applauded. I just can not bring myself to truly recommend this film to most people because it is not a very easy film to watch. It is a long, slow journey that does not deliver a satisfying enough conclusion to justify the path it has taken. Some aspects undoubtedly can be appreciated about it but if you are hoping to see a film that is entertaining or thought-provoking, this is not that film.
And so, Guy’s only recommendation did not live up to the expectations that he had set for it. Is this an indictment on Guy as a person? Probably. If we are being honest, Guy has a lot about his own life to reconsider. One could suggest that he cowardly shrunk at the opportunity to recommend the real movie he wanted me to see. Others could just say Guy is just a simpleton. All of those opinions have their merits, but I think we should go easy on Guy. He usually agrees with me on most topics and no one is perfect, so he was bound to have at least one public wrong answer. No need to hate him because I know he is a good guy (Heh. I am proud of that one).
I give “The New World” a 6.5 out of 10
Starring: Collin Farrell, Q’orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, August Schellenberg
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Runtime: 2 Hours and 15 Minutes