"Find hungry samurai" -Gisaku



{Nominated for Best Cinematography}

There are people who will see THE NEW WORLD and think it’s one of the worst movie ever made, terribly boring, and a total waste of time. There are other people who will like it so much that they will refuse to associate with anyone who doesn’t “get” the power, beauty and message of the film.

And quite possibly those are the only two groups. It’s that kind of movie.

I’ve never seen a Terrence Malick movie before, but my understanding is he directs rarely, and when he does it’s a polarizing effort. What are we talking about? Well, for starters there is very little dialogue in the film, and most of that isn’t even dialogue, but rather internal monologues different characters might have. Meditations, you might call them.

Then there’s the use of nature. Rather than a backdrop on which the story takes place, the natural world is one the characters, perhaps the main character. At times the whole point of a scene, a series of scenes even, is to bask and reflect on the natural world the characters find themselves in.

Lastly, Malick never gives us more information than the characters themselves possess. Many—I’d say almost all—historical movies are made with the understanding of the outcome. The characters spout anachronistic lines more reflective of current politics or statements the director wants to make. We are bombarded with foreshadowing, subtle and not-so-subtle reminders of what something might mean in THE BIG PICTURE. Malick’s movies have characters who are barely aware of their own surroundings, and clueless as to any larger scheme of things. THE NEW WORLD comes to us on that level; tentative, wondrous, afraid, excited, naïve in the extreme.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t significant moments. We start off on the coast. Natives peek through the trees at large shapes coming through the water. What are they? (Of course we as sophisticated 21st Centuryers know they are ships, but did they?) Malick uses a symphony here, in overture mode. It’s the grand beginning of something, something great maybe, and the possibilities are endless.

(Malick uses his James Horner-composed score sparingly but to pitch-perfect effect. Some of the music consists of well-known classical pieces, which give us a sense of familiarity and a leg up on what we should be feeling, while at the same time contradicting the “usual” meaning, which was a real treat. Then the ending brings us right back to that same overture. We’re at the end, but is it also a beginning? Is Malick finally making a statement about the Big Picture, what is to come? Or is he mocking our original expectations? It’s that kind of movie.

The plot is truly not the point of THE NEW WORLD, but it may interest you to know. The story starts in 1607, the Jamestown colony; famous to anyone who ever took an American history class. John Smith is there, along with the rest of the grubby pioneers. They are met by wild Indians. Eventually we meet Pocahontas, and then John Rolfe (the second man in her life).

(Breaking my tradition, I am going to give a brief breakdown of the film, but you need to trust me that I’m giving nothing away. First, it’s all historical, and I expect you to have some knowledge. More importantly, the plot couldn’t be less integral to the film. I will not ruin any movie surprises for you, I promise.)

Sad to say, but most of your knowledge of Pocahontas is limited to Disney’s version. C’mon, admit it: you’re one of them. I’m not saying THE NEW WORLD is literal history, but when you go to all this trouble you might as well get it right, and we’re given far closer to the real story (as much as any figures in history can be “known” and their stories told). Curiously, there were a few details from the recorded events that made their way to the Disney film, like Pocahontas throwing herself on John Smith to save his life, and of course the talking tree. (And the raccoon.)

Pocahontas is the main character, though we never get to know her essence. Strategically (and for what purposes I’m still chewing on), the name Pocahontas is never spoken. We hear nothing of her name until she takes an English one, Rebecca. Still, we know who she is. Well, we know what she is. Who she is remains a delicious mystery. Wrapped in an enigma. Covered in animal furs.

The film starts with John Smith, though it’s as far from the Mel Gibson inspired hero of Disney fame as you can get. Colin Farrell tackles the role, with a quietness I liked. We don’t really get to know him either, but we see what we need. We first encounter Pocahontas through his eyes, his words, his touch. Are they in love? Maybe. A traditional view would say yes. Myself, I’m not so sure. She’s curious about the man, fascinated by how different he is, but if that translates to love…it’s almost too simplistic an idea.

Hyperion’s Rating Guide

Suspension of Disbelief: 2. Hard to believe that many people could go that long without saying anything, but other than that, it’s dead on.

Genre Grade: I’m making up a new category for THE NEW WORLD; High Concept Mood Movie. Some work, like the A+ I’d give for 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY or CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON. Some don’t quite hit it, like the C I’d give to SOLARIS, and some are utter failures (to me), like the F I’d give ELEPHANT. By those standards, THE NEW WORLD has to be a solid A.

Sex/Violence? There is some violence, although nothing I’d call too shocking. However, I can’t see a kid being able to sit through this. For that matter, most adults won’t, either.

Family Film? A big no. I was thinking of my family, and only one other person might like it. Don’t make people watch this unless you’ve seen it and you’re in that “love it to death” camp.

Asskickingness? Not that kind of film

Oscar-worthy? I’ve seen four of the five Cinematography noms, and THE NEW WORLD is easily the best (although I guarantee a BROKEBACK win). Considering the relatively weak field for Best Supporting Actress, Q’Orianka Kilcher should have gotten a nomination. If this review had been written a different way I would have spent half of it talking about her. Ten years from now she’ll be a household name. Trust me. And while I understand that a film this high-concept wouldn’t fly in the Best Picture category, I honestly would have had no problem if it got a nomination for that and Director.

Pantheon Percentile: I’ve said before that a movie suffers in this category if it’s not widely accessible to people. But what if people just aren’t able to get it? Anyway, I’d give THE NEW WORLD a 96.

John Smith’s interactions with Pocahontas mirror that of the colonists with the Natives, or “Naturals,” as they’re called. (And a more apt term you could not find.) Some of my favorite scenes are when the two groups are feeling each other out, almost like strange dogs sniffing each other. It has a child-like feel, a magic, even at the point where battle is imminent, death close at hand.

In some ways the scenes seem staged, but maybe not. How would you react to what would be akin to an alien encounter? Conventional wisdom says overwhelming fright would be our response, but we know from history the two groups interacted, traded to an extent, so that couldn’t have been how it went.

As much as I loved Pocahontas with John Smith—how they learned each other’s language, for example—I think I liked it even more when Pocahontas joins the “White” world. To see her trying to assimilate into a new culture—trying on new words, ideas like you’d try on new clothes, was fascinating. Eventually she comes upon John Rolfe, played by Christian Bale. Rolfe is not the hard man that Smith is, but is still strong. He loves Pocahontas, or Rebecca, as he knows her. She is different by then. Through Smith’s eyes we saw a girl, a princess of her people, warm, caring, and yet different and apart as well. She’s in their world, but also just as likely to want to look at clouds for several hours. I’m having a hard time describing this, other than to say you can see why an entire people would want this girl as their princess. At the risk of incredible corniness, she paints with all the Colors of the Wind.

By the time Rolfe finds her she’s no longer the carefree girl, but a woman. She’s still innocent of spirit, but her eyes are knowing. She’s seen loss. This doesn’t stop Rolfe from being just as captivated, though, in his own way. He’s a kind, decent man (nice to see Bale playing that for once), and Pocahon—I mean Rebecca—cares deeply for him. Is she in love with him? Perhaps not. However, ideas of romantic love in marriage are a more recent phenomenon, and the two of them form a bond no less profound even if it doesn’t include the voyage of discovery she made with John Smith.

Eventually word of the girl reaches the King, and he sends for her. Now instead of the settlers seeing the land that would become America, we see England through the eyes of this princess. We still don’t see the heart of her, but we take what we can get.

This land we see in the film, so pristine and untouched by the White Man’s hand, was called then The New World, which makes sense since that’s what the movie is called. And yet I couldn’t help but wonder if there’s more to it than that. Malick spends so much time showing us nature, the light filtering through the gently waving branches of the trees, the streams bubbling over the rocks. What’s he trying to say about this land? Anything? I have to think a filmmaker of his caliber doesn’t go to all this trouble to make a “mood” movie unless he’s trying to say something about the fundamental nature of…what, exactly?

Maybe the New World is represented through our three main characters. We have John Smith, worldly, rough, burned out just a bit, but still ready to take that next adventure, find the next undiscovered land. How many came to this land in search of a better life, to put their past behind them. The idea of America—at it’s best, it’s most romantic, has always circled that idea of a fresh start.

Perhaps the New World is found in John Rolfe; hard working, quiet, decent, pragmatic, without illusions, but still yearning to live, to love. There is a gentle dignity in him, as there is all across this land, and any land, of people who battle the elements, making the best with what they have, carving out a place for them and all who come after to call home.

You know who that leaves. Pocahontas. The nameless one. This is why I think we don’t get her name. We see around her, we see near her, but we never get to her. The New World has always been a dream, an idea more than any set of compass points and stars on a flag. We reach to Pocahontas as we reach to the New World, the unknowable, the silent mystery that will never be fully revealed. Yet for that knowledge, we don’t stop reaching. We set down ideals we want to live by, and do our best. We never arrive, we never know, but we’re always reaching, listening for that overture that tells us we’re at the threshold of a new beginning.

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