Public opinion of the mysteriously reclusive director Terrence Malick continues to be polarizing. His movies are difficult; they all mosey along at a leisurely stroll, often spending more time digesting the atmosphere than the characters adrift within it. His impressionistic, pared-down visual aesthetic has always threatened to overtake his narratives, be they doomed love triangles (Days of Heaven), revisionist bandit treks (Badlands) or existential war re-creations (The Thin Red Line).
The New World may be his most dense and confounding work yet. It's a film that flows like a great symphony, that sweeps you into its meditative current and guides you toward one epiphany after another. It's a disorienting, confrontational work that understands the human toll of imperialism and the loss of native culture that goes with the inevitability of colonization. In this tale on the surface an epic love story set amidst the founding of Jamestown and in its aftermath the aristocratic English conquistadors are more barbaric than the supposed "savages" whose land they infringe upon, and Malick has nothing but humanism for every victim of this all too often romanticized takeover.
The film opens in 1607, with John Smith (an understated Colin Farrell) arriving in shackles to what would become Jamestown. Imprisoned on the English boat for his mutinous ideas, Capt. Smith is released upon entrance to the new island, as he is the most competent leader in the bunch. The explorers are hostile to the uneducated natives, but Smith immediately takes a fancy to the young Pocahontas (newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher), who he first sees while obscured in a never-ending field, weeds billowing around them. They fall in love, but he is torn away from her by a mission to find the West Indies, and she eventually gives in to the advances of another man, tobacco farmer John Rolfe (Christian Bale).
That's the story, but nobody really watches Terrence Malick movies for the story; it's all about way in which he presents it. The relationship between Smith and Pocahontas is a reciprocally satisfying one, as she indoctrinates him into tribal practices and he teaches her English; the shared voice-over narration between them further suggests a symbiotic connection. When Smith leaves for an entire act of the film, the absence of his voice-over commentary is palpable.
As with any Malick film, there are constant cutaways to fields, streams and trees even during intense battle scenes all of which gives viewers the impression that they're transplanted into the scenes, not merely watching them from a polite distance. While "love is a force of nature" may already be the tagline for Brokeback Mountain, it's far more apt here, as the rhythms and cycles of the elements envelop every romantic encounter.
Within the changing of the seasons and the passing of the years, Malick is able to explore a series of provocative dialectics most prominently primitive idealism clashing with civilized cruelty, but also serenity/chaos, give/take, death/rebirth and the presence and silence of God. The New World does not underestimate the power of religion, used by Pocahontas as a spiritual marker and by the God-fearing explorers as a divine justification for taking the island.
All of these juxtapositions coalesce in a stunning coda, wherein nature always Malick's seductive mistress is used in its most profound and sublime metaphoric context. Does Malick wield his camera like a poet? A philosopher? A composer? He wears all three hats at various times during The New World, confirming his status as one of the few artists to whom the term "filmmaker" doesn't do justice.