Trees. Terrence Malick loves trees. I don’t think it’s possible to emphasize that point strongly enough: Terrence Malick really, really loves trees.
Such are the kinds of artistic predispositions that lead to breathless auteurist hyperbole, with film geeks the world around anticipating The New World as though it were the lost eight hours of von Stroheim’s legendary silent epic Greed. This is not the case; it only feels like eight hours.
Look, I can dig me some contemplative, experimental filmmaking. It’s fairly astonishing that Malick can convince studios to let him make the kinds of movies he makes, in which he takes big-name stars and has them play characters who reveal themselves primarily through ponderous voice-over narration. But there comes a point in any movie where the number of shots of people wandering meditatively through nature reaches critical mass. And in The New World, that point comes long before the credits roll at 135 minutes.
In theory, all that meditating comes in the service of a relatively familiar story'that of John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher). Accused of mutiny, Smith arrives in Virginia in 1607 in chains but has a chance to redeem himself when he becomes an envoy between the English settlers of Jamestown and'as they describe their First Nation neighbors'“the naturals.” But Smith’s time as ambassador largely becomes an opportunity for him to develop a relationship with Pocahontas, while Jamestown slowly disintegrates into disease and famine.
If you saw Malick’s 1998 World War II drama The Thin Red Line, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that most of the love story between Smith and Pocahontas takes place in the characters’ heads. At times it’s eye-rolling stuff, only slightly less exasperating than the dreamy soliloquies that made every Thin Red Line grunt sound like a college sophomore after three too many bong hits. But it’s also a bit more effectively subversive as counterpoint between the characters’ idealized notions and the actual world around them. “Here the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all,” Smith rhapsodizes over the natives’ lifestyle, his proto-Marxist ruminations ultimately clashing with the violence to come. The New World does work at times in an unexpected way: undercutting the impracticality of its romantic subplot through the moony internal “Dear Diary” entries of the participants.
More than anything else, though, Malick appears determined to manufacture a reverie'which is another way of saying that he wants you, the viewer, to fall almost asleep. The images, shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, are indeed often beautiful, but when you’re creating an epic tone poem, you need to think about how many stanzas you really require. Sunsets, clouds, snippets of playful rolls in the grass, oceans, more sunsets, more grass and, of course, lots and lots of trees'are you feeling drowsy yet?
Yes, there are also a couple of battles between all the gawking and beard-stroking, the action doled out with a parsimony that suggests conventional narrative filmmaking pains Malick physically. In fact, there’s an almost aggressive refusal to tell the story the way you’d expect it to be told. John Smith'and along with him, the film’s name-above-the-title star'disappears just over halfway through. The name “Pocahontas” is never uttered once, nor is the name of John Rolfe (Christian Bale), the tobacco farmer who falls for and eventually marries her. In fact, you’d have a hard time figuring out who pretty much anyone is, for all that Malick seems to care about people as flesh-and-blood creatures. When they’re beings of pure thought'that he can deal with.
The one notable exception is Pocahontas, played by newcomer Kilcher in a terrific performance of eyes and body language. It’s left to her to convey the one comprehensible emotional journey in the film'an evolution from idealized romanticism to a more practical, domestic kind of love'in a way that mirrors the portrayal of America itself as a place of tension between the ideal and the practical. Malick’s got big ideas, but unfortunately he’s also got about 45 minutes of movie to spare. The New World is one of those films where you keep trying to convince yourself that what you’re seeing is genuinely interesting, rather than simply different. It’s not every day you can spend this long at the movies to learn how much'how very, very much'the director loves trees.
Editor’s note: The version of the film screened for critics was re-edited by Malick prior to the film’s wide release.